Three things the Blazers need to turn around their season
Consistency, has become the word of the season for the Trail Blazers. “We are consistently searching for it,’’ Terry Stotts quipped after his 19-18 team finished Thursday’s practice.
Little did he know that minutes before, some of his players revealed the answers to finding that consistency. The answers are centered around three prominent figures on the roster: Nurkic, McCollum and Turner.
The good news is, there have been signs over the past two games that things are beginning to turn. The bad news is, the schedule becomes especially daunting over the next 10 days, with four of the next six games versus opponents with better records.
And with the Feb. 8 trade deadline nearing, these next six games might be the most important and telling stretch of the season for the Blazers.
With that in mind, a look at three things the Blazers can do to turn this season around:
More consistent play from Jusuf Nurkic
The biggest reason for the Blazers’ struggles this season has been the erratic play of center Jusuf Nurkic.
He has struggled to make close-range shots and he too often fumbles the ball away or is stripped inside, crippling the team’s offense, which ranks 27th out of 30 teams.
Nobody knows this better than point guard Damian Lillard, who for the past month has worked even more at counseling and coaching the 23-year-old center.
Perhaps that is why Nurkic was quick to credit the return of Lillard on Tuesday in Cleveland for one of his better games. Nurkic had 23 points and seven rebounds at Cleveland and he hit 10-of-12 shots. All six of Lillard’s assists came on passes to Nurkic.
More consistent play from Jusuf Nurkic (continued)
When asked after the game why he was so effective, Nurkic didn’t hesitate.
“Dame is back, that’s probably the best answer,’’ Nurkic said. “His presence out there for me does a lot.’’
With Nurkic and Lillard in sync, the Blazers led the Cavaliers by three at halftime and were tied with 11 minutes to go, before a 19-3 run buried the Blazers.
“That’s how we can play, we know that,’’ Nurkic said. “We showed the potential of what we can do.’’
Still, Nurkic will have to improve his shooting. After making 51 percent in Portland last season, he is down to 46 percent this season. Lillard has spent time working with Nurkic on his pick-and-roll dives and his passing out of double-teams and that connection could be the key in unlocking the ineffective offense.
Elevating CJ McCollum’s play from ‘average’ to All-Star
At season’s start, probably the biggest expectation from within the Blazers, and outside among the fan base, was that CJ McCollum would continue his rise and be at least in the conversation, if not a lock, to be an All-Star.
It hasn’t happened. With streaky shooting and sloppy turnovers, McCollum has been good, but not great, this season.
“I would say I’ve been average,’’ McCollum said Thursday. “Compared to my standard, average.’’
McCollum is averaging 21.3 points, but he is shooting 43.8 percent – his lowest in three seasons as a regular – while his assists have dipped to 3.1, also his lowest since becoming a starter.
His free-throw percentage has also dipped from an NBA-best 91.2 percent last season to 87.2 percent this season, including several misses in crunch time of close games.
“I don’t have a lot of misses,’’ McCollum said. “I just miss at the wrong time.’’
Elevating CJ McCollum’s play from ‘average’ to All-Star (continued)
But recently, there have been signs of a better McCollum. Against Chicago, Stotts said McCollum had his best passing game of the season (he had eight assists and two turnovers) and even though he went 11-for-30 from the field, he did score 32 points and hit big shots down the stretch of regulation and overtime.
And in the first half at Cleveland, he was a factor, hitting 6-of-11.
But the Blazers need McCollum to be more than a factor. He needs to be a force, and he needs to do it more nights than not.
McCollum said he thinks the team is starting to play better, and he vowed that his own play will spike.
“I’ll be better,’’ he said.
A more aggressive Evan Turner
The thinking entering the season was that Evan Turner would be more comfortable with his teammates and Stotts’ system in his second season in Portland, thereby translating to a better season.
That too, hasn’t happened.
Turner has struggled to find his niche with the Blazers, and between poor shooting and head-scratching turnovers, he has been in-and-out of favor with Stotts’ fourth-quarter lineups.
But over his last two games, Turner has been very effective and a potent weapon.
A more aggressive Evan Turner (continued)
Against Chicago, he went 10-for-14 and finished with 22 points and six assists. Then against Cleveland he went 7-for-14 and had 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists.
Lillard said he recently had a pep talk with Turner.
“I told him ‘We need teams to pay attention to you,’’’ Lillard said. “Don’t worry about stepping on toes … do what you do.’’
Turner has supplanted Maurice Harkless as the starting small forward, and if he continues to be an offensive weapon – particularly with his post ups – he could be the player the team envisioned when they signed him – a guy who alleviates pressure from Lillard and McCollum.