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The Blazers Finally Have the Edge They Needed

Portland has been getting it done in crunch time, and it has risen to the upper ranks of the West as a result

C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, and Damian Lillard Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Who takes the last shot?

Bring up that question with the Thunder and the topic suddenly turns into an existential debate. It’s as much a personality test — What does that mean? You don’t think Russ is good? Do you hate fun? — as it is about shooting ability.

No one is having that argument with the Blazers. Their three stars don’t clash. Neither do their styles of play. Big Game Dame can exist alongside Master of the Midrange McCollum, while Jusuf Nurkic morphs into the Bosnian Bear in the paint. Let’s call the final look Lillard’s by default:

Portland has had ample opportunity to prove its cohesion. Fourteen of its 21 games have been certifiable League Pass Alerts (i.e., within five points in under five minutes), the second-most in the NBA. And unlike the Thunder, who are a paltry 1–9 in “clutch” games, the Blazers has thrived in crunch time, winning eight of their 14.

A big part of that may be Portland’s head start in resetting its foundation. The Blazers landed Nurkic (and, improbably, a first-round pick) last February for the low, low price of Mason Plumlee (and a second-rounder), and have spent the time since augmenting the supporting cast around him and their entrenched backcourt. Their incremental in-season improvements — moving Pat Connaughton to the starting lineup, Shabazz Napier stepping up, defense being played (DEFENSE! IN PORTLAND!) — lack flash in this world of superteams, but they’re the type of tweaks that make all the difference for a team with a slimmer margin for error.

That certainly seemed to be the case in the Blazers’ five-game trip out east, which ended in Monday’s 103–91 win over the Knicks. Before the win at MSG, they beat the Grizzlies, Nets, and Wizards by a combined 13 points. (Which is an improvement from the beginning of November, when a flat offense led Portland to lose to the same Memphis and Brooklyn teams back to back by a combined five points.)

C.J. McCollum said after the trip that the team is “able to figure out ways to win games.” That undersells how versatile Portland has looked. In the win over Washington on Saturday, Nurkic beasted the Wizards’ frontcourt to open up opportunities for himself and Lillard. When they weren’t getting clean looks at the rim, they were getting to the line. The latter is something Portland has shown a knack for late in games, as it makes and takes the fourth-most free throws in clutch-time situations.

The Blazers have also been adept at hijacking what their opponent does well. To close out Brooklyn — which is scoring the fourth-most points in the league — Portland countered the Nets’ 52 percent shooting in the third quarter with a three-guard lineup of Lillard, McCollum, and Napier. And against the Grizzlies, a team known to muck up the game, the Blazers left no board uncrashed (seven of their 15 rebounds in the fourth came from guards), and locked in to hold Memphis to its lowest-scoring quarter of the game.

The Blazers’ play on the defensive end has been their Achilles’ heel the past two seasons, but in addition to having the third-best defense in the league, they give up 24.4 points in the fourth, the sixth-lowest in the league, and allow the fewest 3-point attempts in the final quarter. The perimeter defense was solid last season, despite the reputations of Lillard and McCollum, but it has become even more formidable with the addition of Nurkic. A 7-foot “No Trespassing” sign in the paint runs opponents out of options and into bad shots.

All progress isn’t lost this season when the other team gets the ball back. It allows what McCollum and Lillard bring on offense to matter, to keep Portland in games, and to give coach Terry Stotts the chance to draw up a play for the last shot.

Which is … Lillard’s, right?