Pinch me, am I dreaming? Are all the right pieces falling into place for the Trail Blazers?
Something happened to this team the night Zach Collins picked a fight with the Golden State Warriors. Up 21 points with 46 seconds left in the game right before All-Star break, you could tell this team was ready to show the world they were for real. Fluke game? Yeah right, this team just woke up. This was a statement game. Watch out NBA.
The Trail Blazers further bolstered a thriving bench unit lead by Jake Layman’s breakout by adding Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood in trade deadline and post trade deadline waivers, which has helped take a lot of scoring pressure off of the teams two leading scorers in Damien Lillard and CJ McCollum. Landing Enes Kanter off waivers seems almost unfair for a team who deemed him valuable enough to sign him to four-year $70M max contract back in July of 2015. Between Kanter, Hood, Layman and Curry the Blazers have created a four-headed offensive monster off the bench.
The Blazers had a grueling schedule ahead of them after the Warriors victory, a seven game road trip out to the East Coast. Five of their opponents are slated to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs. The Blazers had a dismal 10-15 (.400) record on the road going into this thing, so odds looked stacked against them, right? WRONG.
They opened the road trip against a surging playoff bound Nets team lead by D’Angelo Russell, who was the first Nets player awarded Eastern Conference Player in over three years back on January 21st. Both Nurkic (27 points, 10-15 fg, 12 rebounds) and Kanter (18 points, 8-9 fg’s, 9 rbds, 19 min) had their way with the Nets interior in Kanter’s debut. They went on to destroy the Brooklyn Nets, winning by 14 with a final score of 113-99.
Two days later they had a Saturday afternoon game with the Philadelphia 76ers, who recently acquired All-Star Tobias Harris to compliment their current 3 All Star core of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler. While Embiid sat, Kanter (16 pts, 8 rbds) and Nurkic (24 pts, 10 rbds) had their way again with the oppositions front court, leading the way to a 15-point victory (130-115) for the Blazers and their 3rd double digit win in a row against all playoff teams.
The hype train was in full effect now as the Blazers continued to find ways to win with a more balanced interior attack to compliment on of the leagues best back courts. Next up was the lowly Cavaliers who limited Nurkic and Kanter to a combined 24 points while Seth Curry got the hot hand off the bench and lead the 2nd unit with 15 points on 5-5 three pointers. Blazers went on to win their 4th straight game by double digits, 123-110.
Next up the Blazers were ready to take on a frustrated Boston team who lost by 13 to the Raptors the night before. Relying primarily on their starting lineup, they squeezed out a 97-95 victory against yet another playoff team on the road and an incredible February. Terry Stotts gets named Western Conference Coach of the month for February while firmly stamping his team as a contender and threat to be reckoned with in the playoffs. Consider the month of February to be a statement to Zach Collins statement on the Warriors.
The Blazers finally lost 117-119 to the Toronto Raptors without Enes Kanter, who couldn’t play due to passport issues with the Turkish government, and they broke their five game win streak on a heartbreaking bucket by Kawhi Leonard with 1.7 seconds left and no timeouts. It’s time the league pays notice to the Blazers for the rest of the season. They’re ready to go toe-to-toe with anyone.