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Portland Trail Blazers

Three reasons why this year's Portland Trail Blazers are different

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CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Damian Lillard [NBA Getty Images]

The Portland Trail Blazers are in their sixth season of the Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum experience.

The dynamic duo has yet to miss the playoffs - in their six postseason appearances they have won two series, but have failed to go further than the Conference Semifinals.

Portland has not put up fight after advancing out of the first round, losing by way of a gentleman's sweep, 4-1, in both Conference Semifinals appearances. The past two seasons especially, things have not ended the way they would have wanted.

The Trail Blazers have been swept in the first round in back-to-back years - the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors in 2016-17 and the New Orleans Pelicans in 2017-18.

Do this season's Blazers have a different feel to them?

Lillard is back competing at an All-NBA-level and McCollum is posting nearly identical numbers to last season - but it's the players that surround the backcourt tandum that make this team better.

Can Portland not only avoid a sweep, but make some noise in this year's playoffs?

The matchup is everything

Last season, even though Portland was the No. 3 seed and favorite to win the series, it did not match up well with New Orleans.

The Pelicans had the perfect guard duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to slow down the Blazers' high-powered backcourt and Portland had no response for Anthony Davis - hence his insane averages of 33.0 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in the four-game sweep.

If the season were to end today, the Trail Blazers would find themselves matched with the Oklahoma City Thunder - a team they were swept by in this regular season 4-0.

That's not encouraging, but if you peel back the layers, two of the four games were back-to-backs for Portland. The two that weren't were close calls - one finished in a 2-point loss, the other went into overtime where the Blazers were without Nurkic, who was ejected in regulation.

And they matchup up a whole lot better against OKC, with Lillard on Russell Westbrook, Nurkic on Steven Adams and a rotation of Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu on Paul George than they did against AD and the Pelicans.

As for their other potential first round matchups - they're 2-1 versus the Houston Rockets, 3-1 versus the LA Clippers, 2-1 versus the San Antonio Spurs and split the season series 2-2 versus the Utah Jazz.

So before you go ahead and count out the Trail Blazers assuming this is just like any other season, think again.

Improved play from Jusuf Nurkic

Nurkic made a name for himself last season as a tough and physical big man who was unafraid of challenging anyone at the rim.

He's been a tenacious rebounder and a solid defender, but the major difference this season comes from the improvements in his offensive game.

If you just look at his traditional numbers, you might not see much of a change - he's up to 15.3 points per game (1.0 better than last season) with only a 0.2 percent increase in field goal percentage shooting 50.7 percent.

His free throw percentage made a significant jump to 77.0 percent compared to 63.0 percent last year and he's passing better but aside from that, there's nothing that really grabs your attention.

But once you look into the advanced numbers and the difference with him on and off the court, you'll instantly realize how important his offensive improvement is to his team.

There are two players in the entire league that have an offensive rating better than Nurkic's 115.9 - Stephen Curry (118.5) and Kevin Durant (118.1).

That offensive rating is a full 10 points better than his number for the 2017-18 season. In fact, the Blazers were a better offensive team with Nurkic off the court last season.

This season, that could not be more opposite. When the Bosnian Beast is on the bench, Portland's offensive rating dips to 104.2 which would be the worst in the NBA.

Defensively, you don't need numbers to prove that the Blazers are better when Nurkic is on the floor. His plus-10.1 net rating on the court is a full 15.0-point swing compared to his team's numbers when he is off the court.

How does that compare to last season? A minor 1.9-point difference.

He has given Portland another weapon on offence, something they struggled to find a year ago.

More fire-power off the bench

Last year the Blazers' bench averaged 27.6 points per game, fourth-worst in the NBA.

In need of improvement they added Seth Curry this past summer, a sharpshooter converting 3-pointers at a 44.9 percent clip this season. They have watched guys like Jake Layman and Zach Collins blossom into players who make an impact on a nightly basis and made some key moves at the trade deadline.

They acquired Rodney Hood via trade and claimed Enes Kanter off of waivers to add two pieces that fit perfectly with their already improved second unit.

Layman has been an X-factor for the Blazers all season. He went from averaging 1.0 points on poor shooting percentages and less than 1.0 rebounds per game last season to 7.9 points on 53.1 shooting from the field and 34.2 shooting from three to go with 3.2 rebounds per game this season.

Lillard went as far as saying Layman was the most underrated player on his team over All-Star weekend.

Hood gives them a hardnosed wing player who can confidently defend 1-through-3 and knock down the occasional 3-ball when necessary, shooting 36.0 percent from deep this season.

Kanter is an interesting weapon to help the Blazers' bench, too. He plays with attitude, can score in the paint (already averaging 10.8 ppg, scoring in double-figures in five of his nine games on Portland) and provides them second chance opportunities - he is tied for 10th in the league in total offensive rebounds and his 2.7 offensive rebounds per game since joining the Blazers is already second-best on the team behind Nurkic.

So while teams usually cut down their rotation in the postseason, the Trail Blazers have a unique option of giving their starters rest while not losing much of a step with this new and improved second unit on the floor.

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