• 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

  • Kendrick Nunn
    PG, Miami Heat

    Kendrick Nunn led the way in the Heat's 124-105 win over the Cavs on Saturday, tallying 24 points (7-of-12 FG), eight assists, two steals, one block and four 3-pointers.

    Bam Adebayo was on his way to a big game as well but stopped at 26 minutes because of the blowout, finishing with 15 points, three rebounds, nine assists, a steal and a block on 7-of-9 shooting. Nunn rode a hot start to the year to middle-round value but he's easily outside the top-150 over the last month and is only worth your attention in standard leagues if you need some scoring punch.

  • Devin Booker
    SG, Phoenix Suns

    Devin Booker saw a lot of fives in his stat sheet on Saturday as he recorded 29 points on 9-of-21 shooting with five rebounds, five assists, five treys, one steal and five turnovers in 38 minutes.

    Booker was aggressive on offense and it paid off in spades, leading to a sweet victory for the boys from AZ. Booker's top-30 pace is something that can still be improved as the season winds down, especially if he begins to crank up the 3s rate once again.

  • Derrick Jones Jr.
    SF, Miami Heat

    Derrick Jones Jr. moved into the starting five on Saturday and responded with 13 points, four rebounds, four assists, four steals and a 3-pointer in 27 minutes.

    Jimmy Butler was out tonight and Jones reaped the rewards. The bruised shin he suffered on Thursday doesn't look to be a concern anymore and Jones' stat set has him worth an add as a streamer whenever one of Miami's typical rotation guys is out. He's clinging to late-round value on the full season but there's middle-round upside when the minutes are readily available.

  • Deandre Ayton
    C, Phoenix Suns

    Deandre Ayton was near-unstoppable as the Suns scorched the Bulls on Saturday 112-104, dropping 28 points on 12-of-20 shooting with 19 rebounds,

    Ayton powered his way to a dominant showing in the paint, but Thad Young gave him a challenge, forcing a few of Ayton's team-high seven turnovers. Ayton is a lock to finish in the top-15 (per game) in 9-cat this season, so owners can ride him and the Suns' favorable schedule all the way to the bank.

  • Jae Crowder
    PF, Miami Heat

    Jae Crowder finished Saturday's home win with 13 points, four rebounds, five steals and three triples in 27 minutes off the bench.

    Crowder had made some starts of late but moved to the bench for Kelly Olynyk, who had a solid game here. Despite some terrible shooting numbers, Crowder has played his way into the top-100 neighborhood and should be on rosters in all standard formats at this point.

  • Udonis Haslem
    PF, Miami Heat

    Fittingly, Udonis Haslem checked into the game on Dwyane Wade night in Miami, posting five rebounds in 10 minutes of action.

    The Miami fans were chanting for UD as the rout was on against the lowly Cavs, and though he missed all five shots in his short run it was still fun to see on a big night for the organization. Haslem had made only three appearances all year prior to tonight and isn't on the fantasy radar.

  • Duncan Robinson
    F, Miami Heat

    Duncan Robinson put up 19 points, three assists and five triples in Saturday's easy win over the Cavs.

    Robinson is doing a great JJ Redick impersonation, averaging 3.5 threes per game while hitting .454 from the field and .891 from the line. His lane is narrow but it's good for late-middle round value. Goran Dragic also got in on the fun with 16 points, four rebounds, four assists, a steal and two triples. The Dragon is a borderline 12-team option who really only makes sense in 8-cat formats.

  • Daniel Gafford
    PF, Chicago Bulls

    Daniel Gafford recorded two steals and two blocks in Saturday's loss to the Suns, adding seven points, five rebounds and one assist in 25 minutes.

    Luke Kornet was out of this game with a left ankle sprain, so Gafford feasted on as many minutes at center that were allotted to him. Wendell Carter Jr. is close to a return, so don't expect to stay for drinks at the Gafford afterparty.

  • Kelly Olynyk
    C, Miami Heat

    Kelly Olynyk started on Saturday night and delivered for fantasy owners with 17 points, two rebounds, two assists, two steals, a block and four 3-pointers.

    Olynyk has been right on the cusp of the top-150 over the last couple of weeks but it's hard to imagine him keeping up that pace when the Heat are fully healthy — Jimmy Butler was out tonight and Meyers Leonard is on the shelf as well. KO can do this when he gets minutes and has a stat set that can easily support late-round value, so he's a potential add if you need some short-term help in standard leagues.

  • Larry Nance Jr.
    PF, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Larry Nance Jr. started for Kevin Love (Achilles) on Saturday night but wasn't anything special, scoring 10 points to go with seven rebounds and two steals in 28 minutes.

    Cleveland got absolutely smoked so there was a lot of garbage time in this one. Nance remains a top-120 player on the full season but has actually been better over the last couple of weeks with top-100 returns, so the addition of Andre Drummond hasn't hurt him too much yet. Nance remains a fine hold, so hopefully you didn't cut him in the immediate aftermath of the trade deadline.