Portland Trailblazers fight for eighth seed

CHRIS ARNESON | Evergreen columnist

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Although the Portland Trail Blazers’ season has not gone according to plan, they are still very much in the postseason mix as the NBA season winds down.

With nine games remaining for both teams, the Blazers (35-38) and the Denver Nuggets (35-38) are tied for the eighth seed in the Western Conference as of Monday. Portland recently defeated the Lakers at the Staples Center on Sunday while the Nuggets fell to the New Orleans Pelicans.

These two franchises intertwined recently since making a transaction before the trade deadline this season that may have tilted the fate of each team.

The deal sent 27-year-old center Mason Plumlee from Portland to Denver in exchange for 22-year-old center Jusuf Nurkic. While Denver was considered to have received the better half of the trade when it happened, Nurkic has actually been more effective for his new team. In his first 17 games in Portland, the Bosnian-born player averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds, both career-high numbers in the small sample size.

Nurkic’s contributions as the Trail Blazers’ new starting center has proven to be invaluable as the team is in the midst of a late season push for the final playoff spot. Both Portland and Denver played well as of late, each winning seven of their last 10 games as they vie for the chance to likely play the Golden State Warriors, who boast a 59-14 record and lead the conference, in round one of the playoffs.

In addition to Nurkic, the Blazers relied on their superior guard play throughout the year to keep them in games. Damian Lillard, who was once again an all-star snub in 2017, leads the team in scoring with 27 points per game and six assists. Lillard, the unofficial team captain in his fifth year in Portland, is the heart and soul of the franchise and represents the fans’ gritty attitude.

Along with Lillard in the backcourt, fourth-year guard and named the Most Improved Player in the NBA last season, C.J. McCollum, is arguably a more effective version of Lillard. McCollum shoots the ball more efficiently from the field, especially from beyond the 3-point arc, making more than 42 percent of his attempts. In the final stretch with the game on the line, however, the ball will always remain in the hands of Portland’s two-time all-star Lillard.

The Nuggets, on the other hand, have a balanced scoring attack with seven players averaging double-digit points. Denver is led by 22-year-old center Nikola Jokic, who totaled five triple-doubles this year, which would typically be unheard of before Russell Westbrook shattered our expectations this season.

Comparing the final 10 games for the two teams, I would give the edge to Portland to usurp the Nuggets’ current position. The Blazers will host seven of their final 10 games while the Nuggets will play seven of their 10 on the road, including a massive game at Portland tonight. If the Trail Blazers can win that match up at the Rose Garden, they hold the tiebreaker between the two teams based on their better division record.

The Western Conference is going to be coming down to the wire in 2017, and whoever manages to snag the eighth seed will most likely only win by a game or two.

Chris Arneson is a senior sports management major from Bothell, Washington. He can be contacted at 335-2290 or by [email protected]