It has been a unique NBA season. Cramming too many games into a short span – 72 games in 146 days for the league, minus the All-Star break – resulted in fatigue and injuries that no team in the NBA could escape.
But the Trail Blazers, who have often limped into the playoffs after a tiring run for seeding or just to make the field, emerge for the start of this season’s postseason run as rested and healthy for the postseason as they have been in years.
A five-day break between the end of the regular season and the first playoff game has been a welcome respite – with plenty of time for both rest and preparation.
Jusuf Nurkic, who has been part of a playoff team in just three of his five seasons in Portland and has won just one playoff game during that time, is healthy and ready to go against his former team, the Denver Nuggets, in a series that begins Saturday night in Denver.
Damian Lillard, who is often worn out from carrying his team into the postseason, looks as energized as he’s been going into the playoffs and has said as much..
Only Zach Collins is unable to play, but he has been on the injured list all season.
And the Blazers, who late in the season climbed from a possible play-in berth to the sixth seed in the Western Conference, drew the Nuggets as their first-round opponent – a difficult foe, but certainly not as challenging as drawing Utah or either of the Los Angeles teams.
And those are just a few of the reasons I’m picking the Trail Blazers to send Denver home in Round 1.
The Nuggets lost all-star guard Jamal Murray, a career 40.9 percent three-point shooter in the playoffs, to a torn ACL in his left knee April 12, and without him, they may not have enough firepower to stay with Portland’s elite offense.
Yes, center Nikola Jokic will likely end up being named the league’s Most Valuable Player. But the task for Denver will be finding clutch scoring from someone else.
Portland’s defense, which improved down the stretch of the season as Nurkic’s playing time increased and his conditioning improved, should be able on most nights to hold the Nuggets below what the Blazers will score.
The addition of Norman Powell to the starting lineup at the trade deadline gave the team additional outside shooting and created more room for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to operate on.offense and shored up the defense.
If the Trail Blazers make a lengthy playoff run, that trade will look like one of the team’s best mid-season acquisitions ever.
Portland will rely on three-point shooting, as it has all season – taking and making them at a franchise-record pace.
Outside shooting, of course, can be unpredictable and inconsistent. Random, even. There are games during which teams can’t make even the most wide-open of threes. Then there are other times when highly contested shots from distance hit nothing but the bottom of the net.
But the Blazers are good enough with the long ball, consistent enough with it, to win a seven-game series. And not need the full seven games to do it.
Denver has the homecourt advantage, of course, which means Portland must win at least once on the road.
Just a couple of seasons ago, the Blazers did a very difficult thing – winning a Game 7 on the road in Denver. I would not try to bank on doing that again. And I don’t think the Trail Blazers will need to do it. That win will come sooner in the series.
Rested and ready, I’m calling it for Portland -- in six games.