The long NBA layoff because of the coronavirus has actually helped the Portland Trail Blazers.
That’s because two key pieces of the team, big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, are healthy and ready to play. Nurkic broke his leg last season and hadn’t played since. Collins injured his shoulder earlier this season.
“I think this is the best possible way it could happen to me,” Nurkic said of his return. “To go through a camp, to go through the whole camp, these last two or three weeks. I think it was perfect.”
Nurkic was averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds for the Blazers last season when he was injured.
“You want to be better every day, if you’re good at something you try to get better. For me it was the same approach. I’m not going to waste my time in losing 14 months to not get better,” Nurkic said. “For me it was a challenge every day, what I can do better today than I did yesterday maybe OK. So that was my approach and I definitely, after however long we’ve been here, I can tell that I’m a better player than I was.”
Nurkic and Collins will likely be in the starting lineup along with Carmelo Anthony and the solid backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum when the NBA season restarts in Florida.
The Trail Blazers were just out of the playoff picture, sitting ninth in the Western Conference standings on March 11 when the league was shuttered. They’ll have eight games to secure a playoff berth, starting on July 31 with Memphis.
“We’ve got to come to play. I mean, we come out with Memphis off the bat. That’s a must win. Obviously, we’re playing a lot of good teams on our schedule, and we’re in ninth place now so we’ve got to hold serve,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
The Blazers finished 53-29 last season and clinched the third seed in the Western Conference, going on to make the conference finals for the first time in 19 years. So expectations were high for Portland heading into the season.
“Everything that we did in the past doesn’t matter. We have eight games to get ready for the playoff, to either get in or not get in. So we’re not really worried about what happened up to this point,” McCollum said. “It’s a completely new season, completely new circumstances, new players. So we’ve just be better overall and really take advantage.”
With the return of Nurkic and Collins, the Blazers are almost at full strength. But there are two notable absences: Trevor Ariza and Caleb Swanigan have opted out of the tournament.
Ariza’s absence will no doubt be a blow. Acquired by the Blazers in a January trade with Sacramento, he was averaging 8 points and 4.6 rebounds with Portland and he had developed a good chemistry with his new teammates.
Where we were
Just outside the playoff picture before the season was shut down, Portland was feeling a sense of urgency. Now it’s even greater. Portland has made the playoffs in each of the last six seasons.
“We don’t have time to ease our way in, we don’t have time to try and figure stuff out, we’ve got to come in assertive and aggressive and just go after it,” Lillard said.
Because Anthony will be pressed into service at the 3 because of Ariza’s absence, he took it upon himself to physically prepare a bit for his new role. The result is a decidedly slimmer physique.
“I haven’t seen 230-235 since early, early in my career,” Anthony said. “So now it puts me back in a mindset, from a confidence standpoint, knowing I was able to get back to that. On the court I feel good, I feel healthy, and I have a lot of clarity now, too.”
The key to his quarantine diet? “I can’t tell you that secret,” he said, laughing.
The national spotlight has been on Portland in recent days after federal authorities were sent to the city to quell protests that have been ongoing since the death of George Floyd. The appearance of the federal officers prompted larger protests.
Lillard had participated in a Black Lives Matter march in Portland in early June. He said he has been watching the developments back home.
“I had a personal experience with the protests on a particular day and it was all peaceful,” Lillard said. “And every one that I’ve seen video of has been peaceful, so I don’t understand why federal troops need to be on the ground and physically removing people from the streets. I feel like it’s unnecessary and it’s definitely a scary situation.”