Trail Blazers midseason awards (Part 1)
Throughout the first half of the season, the Blazers had to fight through injuries, head-scratching offensive issues, and poor play at home. But as they headed into the second half – which starts Friday in New Orleans – the Blazers were decidedly upbeat about their direction.
“We are playing well,’’ star Damian Lillard said. “I feel like everything that didn’t work out early in the season is coming back in our favor, because we kept working, we kept staying with it. Now, we have to make sure we keep doing it.’’
Here’s a look back at the first half, and its top developments, storylines and trends...
MOST MEMORABLE WIN OF THE FIRST HALF: At Washington
The Blazers celebrated coach Terry Stotts’ 60th birthday after a stunning fourth-quarter comeback on the road.
Trailing 94-77 with 8:14 left in the game, the Blazers stormed back to win 108-105 behind the offense of CJ McCollum and big defensive contributions from Jusuf Nurkic and Pat Connaughton.
McCollum scored 13 of his 26 points in the final eight minutes, an offensive outburst that was enabled by Connaughton taking McCollum’s defensive assignment on Wizards’ star Bradley Beal. Connaughton took the assignment after McCollum picked up his fifth foul with 8:53 left in the game. Earlier in the quarter, Nurkic had blocks on three consecutive possessions to help ignite the comeback.
After the game, the team presented Stotts with a signed ball to celebrate his birthday.
MOST ENCOURAGING TREND: Improved defense
Led by improved play from Lillard, and anchored by Al-Farouq Aminu and Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers have vaulted from one of the NBA’s worst defenses to one of the NBA’s best.
Portland ended the first half ranked 5th in the NBA in defense, their best ranking since defensive ratings were kept in 1996.
The keys have been Lillard putting an emphasis on playing better defensively, and the continued excellence of Aminu, whose length, smarts and toughness are used to combat opponent’s top wings and power forwards, and the versatility of Evan Turner, who has guarded every position from point guard to power forward. Also, Nurkic has been a solid inside force at protecting the rim.
MOST UNEXPECTED TREND: Home and road play
Usually, the Blazers are one of the NBA’s best home teams, and a team that would take a .500 record on the road.
But this season, much like the flip-flop between the offense and defense, the team has switched identities at home and on the road.
The Blazers went 10-10 at home, including a six-game losing streak in December that featured several blowouts and matched the franchise’s second longest home drought.
Meanwhile, the team has flourished on the road with a 12-9 mark, which has twice included trips where they won three in a row.
MOST DISCOURAGING TREND: Missed close-range shots
Nothing illustrates the Blazers’ first-half offensive struggles more than their inability to make point-blank shots. The Blazers have made only 51 percent of their layins, which ranks 28th out of 30 teams.
It started on the season’s first trip, when Nurkic botched several open layins, and has continued throughout the season, with few immune to the ailment. The puzzling trend doomed the Blazers to the worst offensive stretch in Stotts’ tenure in Portland, with an offensive rating that ranks 23th in the league. In Stotts’ first five seasons, the Blazers were never worse than 16th offensively, a stretch that featured four Top 11 finishes.
The upside is lately, the offense has seen an uptick, thanks to better ball movement and better shooting. In the last six games leading up to the mid-point of the season, the Blazers averaged 114 points a game.