Portland Trail Blazers begin science experiment Thursday in first scrimmage from NBA bubble

Rotations, matchups, scouting reports and likely most of the Portland Trail Blazers playbook won’t be on coach Terry Stotts’ mind Thursday when he gets his first view of his somewhat new-look team in action against an opponent in Orlando, Florida.

Instead, Stotts will pay more attention to how his three big men play together for the first time ever. How well the team is conditioned. How a svelte Carmelo Anthony operates at small forward. And also, maybe how well some of the team’s younger players could ultimately contribute during this stretch run after receiving extra time to develop.

For these reasons, the team’s 40-minute scrimmage against Indiana at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex should be viewed more as a science experiment than a contest, and the same could be said for the following two 48-minute scrimmages to be held Sunday and next Tuesday.

“It’s about working on some of the things that we’ve been able to do the last 10 days,” Stotts told reporters. “And one of the things I like about not having a scouting report is that we’re going have to read and react.”

Portland’s offense is built to go-go-go and not to spend too much time overthinking as it is. But not being able to let loose against an opponent for months has likely dulled the team’s sharpness that made the Trail Blazers’ offense dangerous when they are on.

On the surface, the time off and the fact that the Blazers were sitting at 29-37 when the COVID-19 pandemic halted the season shouldn’t bode well for a dramatic turnaround in Orlando that would result in Portland making the playoffs, let alone coming close to duplicating the team’s run to the Western Conference finals a year ago. But, as fate would have it, the Blazers do have reason for optimism that will either be enhanced a bit following these three scrimmages or bring into focus the team’s plight.

The return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins has certainly reshaped the team’s identity in Orlando. Stotts is eager to see how they work alongside Hassan Whiteside in a three-man rotation at center and power forward. If all three are at their peak, Portland could be in business with an inside presence that will give any team troubles.

Trail Blazers vs Suns

Hassan Whiteside with a two-handed dunk as the Portland Trail Blazers face the Phoenix Suns in an NBA game at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Sean Meagher/Staff

However, while this trio’s potential is intriguing, familiarity is an issue. Nurkic and Collins played together the previous two seasons, but not since Nurkic broke his leg in March 2019, nearly 16 months ago.

Consequently, Whiteside, acquired via trade last offseason, has never played with Nurkic. Collins started three games alongside Whiteside at the beginning of this season before being lost with a shoulder injury.

It would be foolhardy to expect that Collins, who had yet to blossom as an NBA player before his injury, will suddenly emerge as a force after being out for seven months, or that Nurkic will return to his old form after being missing more than a year.

On the other hand, what this trio does have going for it regardless of rust or a lack of familiarity is pure tenacity. All three get after it on the glass and as rim protectors. Effort alone at both ends should create issues for the opposition.

Should that play out, especially on defense, then the next bit of wait-and-see could also be enhanced. The return of Collins and Nurkic made it easier for Stotts to bump Anthony to small forward, where the team lost Trevor Ariza, who will not participate in Orlando after electing to instead spend time with his 12-year-old son during a month-long visitation window that coincided with the team’s return to action.

Anthony, signed in November, has never appeared in a game with Collins or Nurkic, which will make a lineup featuring those three a new adventure for all.

Anthony, who has trimmed down to play small forward, carved out a Hall of Fame career at the position before finding himself playing more power forward later in his career, including with the Blazers. Anthony’s perpetual weakness has been at the defensive end, so expect opposing teams to attack him on the perimeter with more athletic small forwards.

Trail Blazers vs Suns

Carmelo Anthony taps his temple after hitting a three-pointer as the Portland Trail Blazers face the Phoenix Suns in an NBA game at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Sean Meagher/Staff

Stotts pointed out, however, that Anthony should benefit from being backed up by any two-man combination of Nurkic, Whiteside or Collins, all quality rim protectors.

Also, whatever Anthony surrenders on defense could be countered by his ability to go down low on offense to work his low post game.

“I’m sure he’s going to have some favorable post matchups against opposing 3-men,” Stotts said.

Ariza’s absence should mean more time at small forward for Gary Trent Jr., who is a better fit at shooting guard but has developed into a high-energy threat when the team has gone to a small lineup with him at small forward and Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum at the two guard spots.

“I’m confident,” Trent said. “I’m ready to play any position I can on the floor to help this team. Defending, scoring, I can hit open shots. I’m ready to do my job.”

Whatever his role, Trent plans to continue bringing high energy to the court in Orlando and has already done so during practices.

“If I’m being lazy, or I see somebody being lazy, I’ll let them know,” he said. “I’m cheering guys on. I’m trash talking. Just being vocal. Being a voice out there on the floor.”

Rookie forward/guard Nassir Little, who entered concussion protocol following a fall in practice on Monday, is also an option at small forward, as is Mario Hezonja.

Conditioning, Stotts said, will also be high on his watch list come Thursday. Players must use these three scrimmages to get into game shape, but Stotts also doesn’t want to push players beyond their limits so early in the process. The NBA set the first scrimmages for each team at 40 minutes long in order to help minimize the impacts of returning to live action following such a long layoff.

Come Wednesday, NBA scrimmages will be underway, with Portland taking the court Thursday. The Trail Blazers certainly are a long shot to make much noise in Orlando. But at the very least, the team has reason to believe that if everything rapidly falls into place, they have enough talent to at least make life uncomfortable for the true NBA title contenders.

“Everything we did in the past doesn’t matter,” McCollum said. “We’ve got eight games to get ready for the playoffs and either get in or not get in. We’re not really worried about what happened up to this point. It’s a completely new season. Completely new circumstances with new players.”

— Aaron Fentress; afentress@oregonian.com

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