SALT LAKE CITY – The Trail Blazers’ postseason fate won’t be decided until the last week of the season, and the suspense of their late-season push for the eighth spot is now matched by a new pursuit: Figuring out how to play without Jusuf Nurkic.
The Blazers (38-40) are 1-2 since Nurkic was sidelined for the season’s final seven games with a fractured right leg, reducing their lead over Denver for the final playoff spot to a half-game with four games remaining.
In a season spent fighting mostly on a slippery slope, the Blazers with Nurkic the past six weeks appeared to have found their footing, playing with a balanced inside-and-outside attack on offense and a more imposing and staunch interior defense.
Now, without the Bosnian big man, the Blazers have been exposed inside and have become, as Damian Lillard suggested after Tuesday’s 106-87 loss in Utah, more predictable on offense.
The defense in particular is of concern, as opposing centers have had their way inside in the three games without Nurkic. The trio of Alex Len, Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert have combined to shoot 26-of-37 while averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds as the Blazers have alternated at center between playing 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard, and 6-foot-9 forwards Noah Vonleh and Al-Farouq Aminu.
“I think we are still adjusting,’’ Maurice Harkless said of playing without Nurkic. “It’s different. You know, we just got used to playing with him. I think we hit our stride playing with him. Then for him to go out, it’s obviously tough … We are trying to find balance. We know what we need to do, we just have to go out and do it.’’
How quickly the Blazers figure out how to play without Nurkic is paramount in their quest to secure the Western Conference’s final playoff spot.
On offense, the Blazers have talked about experiencing stagnant moments, where player movement has stalled without the anchor of Nurkic initiating pick-and-roll actions. In Tuesday’s loss in Utah, the Blazers had just five assists heading into the fourth quarter before ultimately finishing with eight.
And on defense, they have been at times overpowered by bigger centers, which doesn’t figure to get any easier with upcoming games against Towns, Gobert, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
“Right now, we are just paying a lot of small ball … (which) takes away some dimensions of our offense,’’ Lillard said. “I guess it makes it a little more predictable, easier to guard, but I don’t think it will be that way once we figure out we need more movement, more activity on that end of the floor.’’
Aminu has played admirably at center, both offensively and defensively, but he admits he is still adjusting to play calls as center after playing the last two years as a forward.
Still, it appears coach Terry Stotts is more comfortable playing small – with either Aminu or Vonleh at center – using those lineups more often than Leonard at center.
That’s why Harkless noted that the Blazers need time to adjust to their new small-ball style.
“I think it’s good for us in spurts,’’ Harkless said of the small-lineup. “But I’m not sure how good it us for us over long periods. It gives us versatility – we just have to get used to it.’’
Whether the Blazers have enough time, or margin for error, will add to the intrigue of the season’s final week. Heading into Wednesday night, when Denver plays at Houston, the Blazers own all the advantages over Denver – a half-game lead, the tie-breaker, and a more favorable schedule.
“We know we have a shot – we are still ahead of Denver,’’ Harkless said. “So as long as we just win our games we will be fine. We control our destiny right now … so I think we are in a good spot.’’
Up next: Minnesota at Blazers, Thursday 7:30 p.m. (TNT).