A look back: The top story lines of the 2017-2018 Trail Blazer season (Part 2)
A trip down memory lane
There were the highs of a 13-game winning streak, and the lows of a six-game home losing skid. And by the time the regular season ended Wednesday, the Trail Blazers had recorded one of their most memorable seasons in decades.
The Blazers’ 49-win season, which resulted in a Northwest Division title for the first time in nine years and their highest playoff seed (third) in 18 years, was marked with storylines that took the fan base on a roller coaster of emotions.
Here is a look back at some of the Blazers’ top storylines from the 2017-2018 season in the second part of this two part series:
DEFENSE MAKES ITS MARK
Nothing explains the Blazers’ jump in the standings more than their defensive improvement.
The Blazers went from one of the worst defenses in the league to one of the best, thanks to staunch rim protectors in Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis and Zach Collins, the commitment to improve from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and the versatility of Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless.
After finishing 21st out of 30 teams in 2016-2017, the Blazers this season finished eighth in defensive rating.
DEFENSE MAKES ITS MARK (cont.)
“I’m proud of that,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “We stayed in the top 10 all year, and that was the goal coming into the season, and we sustained it for the most part all year.’’
It was the highest defensive ranking in Stotts’ six seasons in Portland, surpassing the No. 10 ranking in the 2014-2015 season, and it marked the highest finish since the 1999-2000 Blazers finished sixth in defensive rating. That team, of course, advanced to Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals.
JUSUF NURKIC COMES ON STRONG
It was a frustrating start to the season for Jusuf Nurkic, who struggled with everything from making close-range shots, to foul trouble, to mental lapses on defense.
But somewhere around the All-Star break, the 23-year-old center snapped into the dominating form that took Portland by storm the year before.
“What Nurk did this year, it was just like last year,’’ Stotts said. “This season turned when he started playing more efficiently, more impactful. The way he played in the second half of the season is a big part of why we had success.’’
JUSUF NURKIC COMES ON STRONG (cont.)
After the All-Star break, Nurkic averaged 15.0 points and 10.6 rebounds while adding stellar rim protection (1.75 blocks a game).
His development was spurred by an interesting dynamic – the mentorship of team captain Damian Lillard and the nurturing, yet demanding, coaching from Stotts.
Nurkic this season pointed to both as influential in his growth.
“Damian Lillard,’’ Nurkic said in November, “is the best thing to happen to me in my life.’’
And on Stotts:
“I never have a coaching experience like his personality,’’ Nurkic said. “I’ve never had a coach who has trusted me that much … I had a coach before (Denver’s Mike Malone) who never talked to me or play me; now I have a coach who talk to me about every play, and in the film room with me, to work on the stuff I need. He shows me how I can be better. That’s what it is all about.’’
ZACH COLLINS’ GROWTH
A gradual development over the season was the growth of rookie Zach Collins.
The No. 10 overall pick had a disappointing Summer League and non-descript training camp, but he steadily improved to the point where he is a rotation player who makes an impact on both ends of the floor.
“I saw a lot of growth,’’ Stotts said. “Where he was from Summer League to training camp and the beginning of the season to where he is now … he just grew in confidence, strength and understanding of the league. Every step fo the way, there has been growth.’’
ZACH COLLINS’ GROWTH (cont.)
Collins played in 66 games and averaged 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16 minutes. He displayed a toughness that endeared him to teammates and he showed an ability to make big shots in big games.
His biggest impact was in a pivotal March game against Oklahoma City, when he made 5-of-6 shots and scored 12 points, including a key three-pointer late in the game.
And the best thing about him: He’s only 20.