When entering the month of March, the Portland Trail Blazers had a 24-35 record and were on the outside looking in at the NBA Playoffs. However, after going an NBA best 13-3 in March, the Blazers clinched the 8th seed in the Western Conference with a first round matchup looming against the NBA’s best Golden State Warriors.
Portland Head Coach Terry Stotts joined The Jim Rome Show on Tuesday and said a few things contributed to his team’s massive improvement.
“The obvious thing everyone points to is getting Jusuf Nurkic on the team. That trade really gave us a shot of life,” Stotts said. “Jusuf, it was refreshing for him to come into this situation and we kind of saw that the team was going to change a little bit, so that was certainly one thing. But I think overall, Damian (Lillard) was the player of the month in March, just has had a great run since the All-Star break. He’s been playing some of the best basketball of his life during that stretch. And everybody else, obviously it’s a team game, but whether its Al-Farouq Aminu, or Moe Harkless, or Allen Crabbe, or C.J. McCollum, it just seems like everybody kind of lifted their game up after the All-Star break.”
Lillard’s play in March may have been motivated by not being named an All-Star this year. Stotts feels Lillard doesn’t get the respect his play deserves.
“I probably shouldn’t say surprised, but I was very disappointed that he didn’t make the All-Star team,” Stotts said. “But winning is important, and when you’re on a winning team, you get the individual accolades a little bit more, but I certainly appreciate what he’s done not only this year but over the course of his career.
Stotts also pointed out how stacked the point guard position is in the NBA. He said what James Harden and Russell Westbrook are doing this season is overshadowing everyone including Steph Curry and Chris Paul. So when it comes to his guy Lillard, Stotts said, “I don’t know if underrated is the right word but he probably is overlooked in the grand scheme of things.”
Since acquiring Nurkic from Denver in February, the Bosnian big man had played brilliantly up until his non-displaced right leg fibular fracture on March 30th.
“He’s better than I think we anticipated,” Stotts said. “I tell you what, one of the first plays he got the ball, we played in Utah, first game he played and he got the ball on the block and instead of trying to score he found Damian Lillard on a really nice cut and a layup, and I think when he did that, it was like we got a guy who could score and pass.”
Stotts says Nurkic’s much more than just a big body.
“He’s a better shooter than we expected. His free throw shooting I think was a little misleading, because he has a really nice touch. He’s probably a better defensive player than we anticipated,” Stotts said. “So I think up and down the line other than the fact that he’s a center, his passing is probably better than we expected, so I think up and down the line his skill set was better than we expected.”
As for Nurkic’s injury and availability in the first round against Golden State, Stotts wasn’t sure, “Really hard to say right now. He’s going to be evaluated and try to see what can be done going into the playoffs, but right now, I think it’s too early to say one way or another.”