• 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

  • Reggie Jackson
    PG, Detroit Pistons

    Reggie Jackson (back), Luke Kennard (knee) and Markieff Morris (illness) are all questionable for Wednesday's preseason matchup vs. the Hornets.

    The Pistons are likely exercising caution while the games don't matter. They will be ready once the regular season rolls around. Monitor their status ahead of tip-off for DFS lineups.

    Source: NBA Injury Report

  • Amir Hinton
    PG, Free Agent

    The Knicks have waived point guard Amir Hinton on Wednesday.

    Hinton was unable to play in either of the Knicks' first two preseason games before being waived. Hinton may end up playing in the G-League and is not on the fantasy radar.

    Source: Knicks PR on Twitter

  • Tyler Cook
    PF, Free Agent

    The Nuggets have waived Tyler Cook who signed a two-way contract earlier this offseason.

    With Cook waived, the Nuggets now have one two-way contract available. They are likely to give this contract to a training camp invitee who has impressed. One name that has come up is P.J. Dozier. This transaction doesn't impact the fantasy landscape.

    Source: Harrison Wind on Twitter

  • Marvin Williams
    PF, Charlotte Hornets

    Marvin Williams (illness) has been ruled out of Wednesday's preseason game vs. the Pistons.

    Williams had a doubtful tag previously so it was never expected that he would suit up. Williams should be fine to play once the regular season rolls around but is likely going to see his minutes and production decline as the Hornets focus on developing their young talent. Look for Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington to get a lot of run in this preseason finale.

    Source: Hornets PR on Twitter

  • Terry Rozier
    PG, Charlotte Hornets

    Terry Rozier (left knee) will not play in Wednesday's preseason finale vs. the Pistons.

    Rozier is dealing with some tendinitis that will force him to miss the last game of the preseason. It is likely that the Hornets are being extra cautious as the regular season is around the corner. Expect Rozier to start at point guard once the regular season begins. Devonte' Graham and Malik Monk are two guys to look at for DFS lineups on Wednesday with Graham having the higher upside.

    Source: Hornets PR on Twitter

  • Maxi Kleber
    PF, Dallas Mavericks

    Maxi Kleber is probable to start in Thursday's preseason finale vs. the Clippers.

    Kleber is likely to be joined by Luka Dončić, Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee and Delon Wright. With Powell hampered by a hamstring strain, Kleber is a strong candidate to look at in DFS lineups for Thursday's slate. Kleber could provide fantasy value at some point this season. He is someone to look at at the very end of drafts. Kleber should be on watch-lists if he is a free agent in your league.

    Source: Brad Townsend on Twitter

  • C.J. Wilcox
    SG, Free Agent

    The Pacers have waived C.J. Wilcox, Amida Brimah and Walter Lemon Jr. on Wednesday.

    None of these players were on the fantasy radar. The Pacers roster is now set with 15 full-time players and two two-way players.

    Source: Pacers PR on Twitter

  • Seth Curry
    SG, Dallas Mavericks

    Seth Curry (right knee contusion) is questionable to face the Clippers on Thursday while Dwight Powell (left hamstring strain) remains out.

    The Mavs are likely exercising caution with their rotation players ahead of the start of the regular season. Continue to monitor Curry's status ahead of tip-off for DFS lineups.

    Source: Brad Townsend on Twitter

  • Jalen Brunson
    PG, Dallas Mavericks

    Jalen Brunson (sore left hamstring) and Dorian Finney-Smith (hip flexor) are both questionable for Thursday's game against the Clippers.

    Both Brunson and Finney-Smith are likely being held out as a precaution in advance of the regular season. Continue to monitor their status up until tip-off if you are looking at playing some Mavs in your Thursday DFS lineups.

    Source: Brad Townsend on Twitter

  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
    SF, Toronto Raptors

    Raptors' head coach Nick Nurse heavily criticized Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson and other new additions for not playing hard enough and not playing with the level of defense that is expected.

    Nurse was not subtle in his criticism of the new additions the roster. Perhaps this is "coach speak" so that the new guys play harder to start the season. However, it would be safe to assume that the rotation will be dominated by the players that were on the championship roster from a year ago.

    Source: Eric Koreen on Twitter