Yes, 12 games into the 2017-18 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers’ record could be a lot better than 6-6. But looking at the Western Conference standings, it’s not all bad.
The Blazers are currently in eighth place in the West with their .500 record, while 13 of the 15 teams in the conference have accrued at least five losses thus far. Four of Portland’s six losses in the early season have come by an average of 2.25 points, including a buzzer-beater loss to the LA Clippers, a three-point loss that came down to the wire on the road in Milwaukee and coming up just short in a one-point loss to Memphis last week.
“We’re in a good position for the amount of close games we’ve lost,” point guard Damian Lillard said Sunday. “We could very, very easily be 10-2.”
Lillard continued: “Look around… Golden State and Houston, they have great records. After that, everybody’s pretty much 7-5, 5-6 or 6-6. The sad thing for us is that we had an opportunity to be 8-4, 9-3 and we blew that opportunity with home games and winnable games. That’s why it feels bad, might look bad for us, but we’re ahead of a lot of teams or right there with a lot of the teams that might be playing better than we are.
“I think we could be better, but we’re doing fine for ourselves at this point.”
One of the teams ahead of the Blazers in the West are the 8-5 Denver Nuggets, who visit Portland Monday night. The Blazers edged the Nuggest for the eight seed in the West last season, with a clutch 115-113 overtime October win in Denver and 122-113 victory at Moda Center in late March giving the Blazers the advantage at season’s end.
Instrumental in that March win and Portland’s push for the playoffs last season was center Jusuf Nurkić, who was acquired from Denver in February along with a first-round pick in exchange for fellow big man Mason Plumlee. In his lone matchup with his former team, Nurkić posted a career-high 33 points and snagged 15 rebounds in Portland’s 122-113 win over the Nuggets in March. The “Bosnian Beast” even wished his former team ‘a happy summer’ in his postgame interview as the Blazers past Denver in the Western Conference standings with the win.
This time around though, Nurkić isn’t seeking revenge against the Nuggets. Instead, the 7-footer is focused solely on helping his current team bounce back from back-to-back defeats.
“I like playing them? Nah. I don’t care. Another game and we need to be better; we need to win the game,” said Nurkić, who spent two-and-a-half seasons in Denver. “No drama, man. It’s all about the game. We definitely need to improve some stuff and we look forward to that.”
Though Nurkić is downplaying the ‘revenge game’ mentality going into Monday’s matchup, Lillard believes there’s still a little bit of a fire in his teammate when it comes to playing Denver.
“If I was in his position, there would always be something a little bit extra,” Lillard said of Nurkić. “Even if it wasn’t as bad a maybe the first time, there would always be something.”
He’s not listed on the Trail Blazers’ injury report, but the middle and ring fingers of Lillard’s left hand were wrapped in a splint at Sunday’s practice. Lillard injured his ring finger in Friday’s loss in a loose-ball situation with Brooklyn Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
“I’m just trying to use this finger to help this finger out, they’re a team,” Lillard said observing the splint. “I knew it got hit, but he actually pulled my finger. He pulled my finger and it went back and to the side, my ring finger.”
Head coach Terry Stotts told media that Lillard did not participate in Sunday’s practice, but Lillard maintains he should have no issues with the finger on Monday night.
“It was precautionary today, just so it didn’t accidentally get caught anywhere. I don’t see it being an issue. Obviously it’s sore,” Lillard said.
“I hurt my shooting hand a couple years ago and still played, this ain’t even close to that. It’s not a big deal.”
Also not listed on the Blazers’ inury report is big man Meyers Leonard, who missed the last seven games with a sprained right ankle suffered in practice on October 27. While the original timetable was four to six weeks, Leonard will be active for Monday’s contest after participating in part of Monday’s practice.
“He was very limited,” Stotts said of Leonard. “He only played halfcourt. He looked fine for the first time back. I didn’t see any limitations with his ankle. He’ll be active.”