• 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

  • Dennis Smith Jr. - G - Dallas Mavericks

    Dennis Smith Jr. (illness) is questionable on Sunday vs. the Bucks.

    DSJ has missed the past five games with this illness and things aren't looking good for him. With Luka Doncic now running the show in Dallas they just don't need Smith as much as they once did. He's not worth owning in standard leagues.

    Source: NBA Injury Report

  • Ricky Rubio - G - Utah Jazz

    Ricky Rubio (hamstring) was a full participant in Sunday's practice.

    His official status will be updated later but it's very encouraging to see that he was a full go. He's missed the last six games with this hamstring injury and the Jazz are very thin when it comes to point guard so they'll be happy to have him back. Rubio, Raul Neto and Dante Exum are all missing time with injuries right now so Donovan Mitchell had to play the PG. With Rubio hopefully returning, Mitchell can slide back down to his role as a SG and Rubio will have no competition for the PG spot.

    Source: Eric Walden on Twitter

  • Allen Crabbe - G/F - Brooklyn Nets

    Allen Crabbe (knee) and Jared Dudley (hamstring) have both been ruled out vs. the Kings on Monday.

    Crabbe hasn't played since Dec.12 and Dudley has missed the past four games with his hamstring injury. The Nets have been rolling lately without both of them so I doubt they're in any rush to bring them back. Dudley holds no fantasy value so he's worth leaving on the wire but Crabbe has the potential to get hot and provide owners with some points and triples. Crabbe is closer to returning than Dudley but neither can be held right now.

    Source: Greg Joyce on Twitter

  • Trey Burke - G - New York Knicks

    Trey Burke (illness) is being listed as questionable vs. the Thunder on Monday.

    In Burke's past three games he's the 304th ranked player in fantasy and hasn't been very valuable as of late. The Knicks are pretty stacked when it comes to guards and Burke has missed the last two games with this illness. However, he did play at least 24 minutes in each of the two games before he got sick. It's a messy situation over in New York and Burke only needs to be owned in deeper leagues.

    Source: NBA Injury Report

  • Richaun Holmes - F/C - Phoenix Suns

    Richaun Holmes (left foot sprain) will not suit up for Sunday's game vs. the Wolves.

    Holmes had been trending down over his past three games and now he'll sit this game out with a foot injury. It doesn't seem too serious but it's serious enough for the Suns to sit him out even though they don't have DeAndre Ayton (ankle). Phoenix isn't very deep at center and they'll be extremely shorthanded with both Ayton and Holmes out so Dragan Bender and Quincy Acy might get some time at the five.

    Source: Kyle Ratke on Twitter

  • Deandre Ayton - C - Phoenix Suns

    DeAndre Ayton (ankle) has been ruled out of Sunday's matchup vs. the Wolves.

    This could be the first of a couple missed games for Ayton with this ankle injury. We still don't know the exact severity of it so there isn't an exact timetable but the Suns don't usually rush their players back. With Ayton out, usually Richaun Holmes would be a must-start guy but considering the fact that he's also out, the Suns are very low on big men. Look for Quincy Acy and maybe even Dragan Bender to get some more playing time.

    Source: Kyle Ratke on Twitter

  • James Harden - G - Houston Rockets

    James Harden, coming off 57 & 58-point games, scored a mere 48 points on 14-of-30 shooting (8-of-19 3PTs, 12-of-15 FTs) with eight rebounds, six assists, four steals and one block in Saturday's 138-134 overtime win against the Lakers.

    Harden has actually moved into the No. 2 slot in 9-cat leagues this season despite a ridiculous 5.6 turnovers per game, more than double most of the players in the top-12. He's running away with 8-cat leagues as this historic run continues.

  • Austin Rivers - G - Houston Rockets

    Austin Rivers started and scored five points on 2-of-8 shooting (1-of-6 from deep) with five rebounds, five assists and one block over 46 minutes in Saturday's overtime win against the Lakers.

    Don't look now but Rivers has been a healthy late-round value since arriving in Houston, aided of course by the fact they absolutely need him on the floor. He's standing and watching James Harden just like everybody else, but he's worth a look if you need a late-round guard.

  • PJ Tucker - F - Houston Rockets

    P.J. Tucker scored nine points on 4-of-12 shooting (including a three) with nine rebounds, two assists, five steals and one block over 42 minutes in Saturday's overtime win against the Lakers.

    Tucker is going to be a must-own player for the foreseeable future.

  • James Ennis III - F - Houston Rockets

    James Ennis started and scored 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting (including four threes) with three rebounds and one block over 27 minutes in Saturday's overtime win against the Lakers.

    Ennis could scrape his way to some fantasy value on a banged up Rockets squad but owners can watch this action from the wire for the most part.