• The Portland Trail Blazers are 4-2 in the past six games, each victory coming over teams with either legitimate title aspirations or playoff hopes. Their two losses during that timeframe were the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder, the first on the second leg of a home-and-home that they split with the defending champions and the last a hard-fought defeat at the final buzzer to the team that’s been basketball’s best since the first two weeks of 2018-19. Portland, less than a month removed from falling perilously close to .500, suddenly sits at 23-17, three games up on ninth place in the rough and tumble Western Conference at the season’s midway point – and, maybe most importantly, having just finished off its most difficult portion of the 82-game schedule.

    Jusuf Nurkic deserves immense credit for helping the Blazers navigate those waters successfully. He’s averaging 22.2 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game on 58.8 percent shooting over the last six outings, scraping the two-way ceiling on a nightly basis that he’d previously reached intermittently. Nurkic won’t etch his name in the record books with historic five-by-fives every night, obviously, but box-score stats don’t accurately convey a player’s defensive impact anyway, especially with regard to big men. What does? Portland opponents during this stretch shooting a paltry 53.4 percent at the rim with Nurkic on the floor compared to 70.0 percent when he’s on the bench, per NBA.com/stats.

    In the long run, defense is still where Nurkic will make his most significant mark for the Blazers. It’s no coincidence their first top-10 finish in defensive rating since 2014-15, when LaMarcus Aldridge was still in town, coincided with Nurkic ranking among the league’s stingiest rim-protectors. Memories of Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic playing him off the court in the first round of last year’s playoffs not only linger, but also serve as a harsh reminder of what innate matchups problems could plague Portland again come spring. The league has only gotten smaller, faster, and spacier in the interim.

    There’s a theoretical foil to the benefits of most every mismatch in basketball, of course. The question is whether a team has the necessary personnel or a player the necessary skills to exploit it. Conventional wisdom says Nurkic, for instance, should feast down low when the opposition downsizes or dares to check him with a smaller defender. Centers with his blend of strength, length, coordination, and touch around the basket are few and far between. What that enviable blend of attributes had yet to produce before recently, though, was a player worthy of being a go-to offensive option with his back to the basket. Nurkic shot 42.8 percent from the post in 2017-18, per NBA.com/stats, and fared slightly worse on a similarly low number of chances against the New Orleans Pelicans in the postseason. With Davis running and jumping him ragged and Mirotic sniping from 28 feet, there was just no reason to keep Nurkic on the floor if he was unable to offset those deficiencies by abusing either one of them in the block.

    Fast forward nine months, and it’s become increasingly difficult to imagine the same fate befalling Nurkic again, at least to that extent, almost no matter what type of personnel Portland could face in the playoffs. Nurkic averaged 3.6 post-ups per game before the Blazers beat the Warriors in Oakland on December 27th, shooting 42.9 percent on those tries and passing out of them 27.6 percent of the time, per NBA.com/stats. He’s getting a whopping 11.2 post-ups per per game since, just below LaMarcus Aldridge’s league-leading mark for the full season, shooting 54.8 percent from the field and passing out of the post at a 38.8 percent rate. His number of touches is up, too, all the way to 75.5 per game – second on the team behind Lillard, and over 20 touches more than the amount he received prior to this six-game stretch.

    Those are massive increases across the board, and their variety speaks to just how well Nurkic has been able to strike a balance between beasting overmatched defenders and keeping the ball moving when a double-team comes or his initial move is stymied – perhaps because he knows another chance to score will come sooner than later. Empirically, it seems as if he’s committed himself to making quick, aggressive decisions down low, whether that means limiting his number of dribbles on drop steps and hook shots or sealing big and wide to establish deep post position. He’s been similarly effective and decisive as a roll man in his dance with Lillard, maintaining control with the ball in his hands on the move despite a crowded painted area. How many times in the past two weeks have we seen Nurkic catch on the dive, take one dribble as help arrives from the weak side, then score at the rim with finesse or power completely unencumbered?

    This might not be Portland’s new normal, and not just because it would be irresponsible to expect Nurkic, in the middle of his fifth season, to suddenly sustain an All-NBA level of production. The Blazers’ opponents of late have all presented Nurkic with a golden opportunity to pound the ball in the paint: Golden State made small-ball a fad and routinely switches 1-through-5; the Philadelphia 76ers were playing without Joel Embiid; the Sacramento Kings’ young big men have far more length than girth; no team in the NBA switches more readily than the Houston Rockets. It bears mentioning, too, that a sizable majority of Nurkic’s points in a 22-point effort against the Thunder came via ball-screen action, not mano-a-mano on Steven Adams in the post.

    Even if Nurkic reverts back to a more supporting role in Portland’s offense, the import of his recent play should still loom large. Those fans who have long been pining for him to get additional touches on the block had no defensible reason to justify that desire other than the blind hope Nurkic would fare better with more opportunities than he did with less. He’s getting them now, of course, and taking greater advantage than even his biggest proponents likely thought possible. It remains unclear what level of performance, no matter who the Blazers are playiing,  Nurkic will achieve over the season’s remainder. Either way, it sure is nice for Portland to know for certain that he’s now fully capable of dominating when his number is called.

Fantasy News

  • Tyson Chandler - C - Los Angeles Lakers

    Tyson Chandler (neck stiffness) is questionable to play against the Wizards on Tuesday.

    Chandler is a bit player in the twilight of his career, but if he and Mike Muscala miss tonight's game against the Wizards, Moritz Wagner and Johnathan Williams will be looking at extended minutes.

    Source: Kyle Goon on Twitter

  • Reggie Bullock - F - Los Angeles Lakers

    The Lakers are now listing Reggie Bullock (right plantar fasciitis) as out for Tuesday's game against the Wizards.

    Bullock will join Josh Hart on the sidelines tonight, opening up a continued prime position for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso. KCP has been on a fire lately and has been making a case to be owned in all leagues for the final stretch run.

    Source: Kyle Goon on Twitter

  • LeBron James - F - Los Angeles Lakers

    LeBron James (left knee contusion) will be available to play in Tuesday's game against the Wizards.

    It will be business as usual for LBJ tonight, so make sure to get him back in to your lineups. LeBron has a nice matchup against the Wizards soft defense in a big DFS slate tonight, and is a worthy pivot play.

    Source: Kyle Goon on Twitter

  • Elfrid Payton - G - New Orleans Pelicans

    Elfrid Payton (bruised right wrist) was upgraded to probable for Tuesday's game against the Hawks.

    Feel free to get Payton back in your lineup. Payton has been a top-70 guy in 9-cat leagues over his last six games and has a nice matchup for opposing PG's against the Hawks on tap for tonight.

    Source: NBA Injury Report

  • Anthony Davis - F/C - New Orleans Pelicans

    Pelicans are now listing Anthony Davis (lower back spasms) as doubtful against the Hawks on Tuesday.

    Julius Randle, Cheick Diallo and Jahlil Okafor should all see some extra minutes tonight, with the latter two becoming nice streaming targets in a plus matchup. Be sure to check the starting lineups as we get closer to tip-off.

    Source: NBA Injury Report

  • Jrue Holiday - G - New Orleans Pelicans

    Jrue Holiday (lower abdominal strain) underwent successful core surgery on Tuesday and will miss the rest of the season.

    Holiday was looking unlikely to suit up again this season before the surgery, so this doesn't change his value much. If you were holding out hope that Holiday would return, it is officially time to let go.

    Source: Pelicans on Titter

  • Frank Ntilikina - G - New York Knicks

    Frank Ntilikina (sore groin) did not practice on Tuesday and the Knicks are set to re-evaluate him on Wednesday.

    Missing practice is never a good sign. It's not looking likely that Ntilikina will play again this season after his most recent setback, but we will have a better idea after the re-evaluation.

    Source: Mike Vorkunov on Twitter

  • Kenneth Faried - F/C - Houston Rockets

    Rockets are listing Kenneth Faried (left knee soreness) as out on Tuesday vs. the Bucks.

    Faried was providing deep-league big man stats the last two games since his return with 9.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and a block per game. His minutes will likely be scattered throughout the rotation.

    Source: Craig Ackerman on Twitter

  • Eric Gordon - G - Houston Rockets

    The Rockets are now listing Eric Gordon (sprained right ankle) probable for Tuesday's game against the Bucks.

    Feel free to get Gordon back in your lineup. The Bucks and Rockets are both top three teams in terms of offensive efficiency and we could see some fireworks tonight.

    Source: Craig Ackerman on Twitter

  • Allonzo Trier - G - New York Knicks

    The Knicks are set to re-evaluate Allonzo Trier (strained left calf) on Wednesday.

    Trier was scoring 14.0 ppg in 25.4 mpg during the dozen games before going down with the strained calf. While Trier is only a streamer with low-end value, his return would mainly be a dent into the minutes that Damyean Dotson and Emmanuel Mudiay have been seeing.

    Source: Mike Vorkunov on Twitter