ATLANTA – Wednesday night in Chicago, the Trail Blazers had it pretty easy, playing a Bulls team that resembled an NBA Summer League squad.
It won’t be that easy for the rest of the four-game trip, which features a Friday night game against the Hawks.
But perhaps more important than the games themselves is the battle that’s being waged among the Portland big men to fill the open minutes created by the absence of injured center Jusuf Nurkic for the upcoming playoffs.
Coach Terry Stotts has already said that for the rest of the regular season he’s going to be looking at combinations and players.
That’s code for searching for his most able post-season lineups and rotations.
And replacing Nurkic is going to take more than one player. It's likely going to be a combination based on matchups and specific skills of the players.
“The next two weeks we’re going to look at different combinations,” Stotts said after the Chicago game. “Zach (Collins) played a little five out there by himself and that was good to see. I was hoping to get Skal (Labissiere) in a little bit earlier, but that front line was a little big.”
For the record, Stotts used Enes Kanter as the starter and he played 21:51. Meyers Leonard played 18:00, Zach Collins played 25:04 and Labissiere played 3:56.
It’s been apparent all along that replacing Nurkic at the defensive end is going to be much tougher – if not impossible – than finding his points at the offensive end.
At first glance it may have appeared that Portland had a good defensive effort at Chicago. The Bulls shot only 42.9 percent from the floor and scored just 98.
But there was more to it than that. The Bulls had 58 points in the paint and missed several point-blank attempts at the basket. A more talented team is going to attempt to punish Portland at the basket with Nurkic unavailable.
All of the centers can score but only Collins offers any sort of rim protection and even though he’s just a second-year player, he is probably the one who brings the best combination of offense and defense.
But the battle is on and it was hardly fair to judge Leonard off the game Wednesday with all the rust he’s accumulated over the past month.
Kanter can score off post-ups but not in a lot of other ways and is not known as a quality defender. It’s hard to imagine Labissiere, who is promising, in the picture because of his inexperience.
Certainly all the players know what is at stake for them down the stretch of the season, even though they are reluctant to talk about it.
“Right now we all need to play well,” Collins said. “We all need to come together, obviously. We’ve got to pick up the slack. Nurk, at both ends of the floor, has been tremendous for us all year and so that’s my focus, to make sure there is no dip.”
Collins mentioned what has been his biggest problem during his NBA career so far, “I’ve got to stop fouling.”
Kanter says there isn’t much of a problem for him shifting into the starting lineup.
“I’ve started and come off the bench,” Kanter said, referring to his time in the league. “When you play with a guy like Dame and the others, that’s what makes it special and I just go out there and have a good time.”
Lillard is more worried about the chain reaction of losing a starting player and the impact it has down the rotation.
“It’s not like we’re left out there naked,” he said. “We have guys who can step up. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that now they’re not in what their original role was and now they have to be something else.
“It’s not like we don’t have guys who can come in and do good things for the team, it’s just that the hole still remains. Having to step up and do more is what makes it a challenge.”
Lillard acknowledged what’s going on with his teammates right now.
“They know what’s going on,” he said. “They’ve got to step up. They’ve been doing it the last five games or so. Zach’s been playing with confidence defensively and taking shots on offense. He’s been doing what he’s been doing since he’s been on the team – give us that big presence.”
And the battle resumes Friday night against the Hawks.