The race for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot is on. Currently, Memphis owns it, but four teams are in hot pursuit. One of those is Portland and the question is can the Trail Blazers make the playoff cut. The answer is directly proportional to the return of Damian Lillard.
Lillard, who averages 29.5 points per game for Portland, has not played since Feb. 12 due to a groin injury. The earliest he could return to the Trail Blazers lineup is Wednesday, March 4, against Washington. Portland has not fared well without their star. The Trail Blazers are 1-6 in their last seven games.
The other big injury for Portland was the loss to Rodney Hood to a torn Achilles tendon. The lineup of Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Carmelo Anthony, Hassan Whiteside, and Hood went 4-1 until Hood’s injury. That lineup shot 55 percent from the field with Hood averaging 11 points a game.
Portland has the sixth-easiest remaining schedule in the league. The team the Trail Blazers are chasing – Memphis – has the toughest remaining schedule. This gives Portland ample opportunities to make up ground on the Grizzlies.
Portland faces Memphis twice more and both games are at home. The Trail Blazers are currently 12th in the conference standings and trail Memphis by 3.5 games. New Orleans is ninth, Sacramento tenth, and San Antonio is 11th.
The Blazers have finished their season series with the Spurs and won the tiebreaker. Portland plays New Orleans once more. That game is also at home.
In addition to Lillard returning to the lineup soon, Portland could have both Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back as well. Collins will be re-evaluated soon and should return before the end of March. Nurkic is expected to play at some point this season. With both backs in the lineup, it could help to ease the loss of Hood.
The Trail Blazers’ current position is nothing new. Their performance at the end of the regular season over the past three years suggests Portland can make the postseason. Portland’s combined record after the All-Star break over the past three seasons is 54-21.
Remember the 2016-17 season. Portland was 23-33 at the All-Star break. The Blazers finished 18-8 to make the postseason. Whether they make it in 2019-20 depends largely upon Lillard returning the lineup quickly.