Last season, or maybe the season prior, I wrote a recap following a Blazer loss with the thesis that as fans, our reactions to Portland losses can tell us a lot about who we are. I hold that this is still true today. Saturday night, the Blazers dropped what might have been a winnable game (I say might because even though this thing got close at the very end it was never that close but in my heart I know that Portland should be able to beat Milwaukee at least at home) 110-104 to the better than .500 Milwaukee Bucks.
We’ve seen this story before. Head coach Terry Stotts in one of his more heated post game press conferences called it “Groundhog’s Day,” a reference to the Bill Murray flick and not the actual holiday of course. The Blazers came out flat, flat-lined for two and a half minutes in the middle of the first quarter, and though they put up a fight at the end of the fourth quarter (ironically after about half of the Rose Garden crowd had already gone home for the evening) they essentially never recovered. Basically the same thing that happened Wednesday against the Cavs, and Tuesday against the Nuggets, and Sunday against the Thunder. You get the point.
So how then, as fans, are we supposed to react to this. Portland right now isn’t a bad team. In fact, with Houston on a seven-game losing streak and the Minnesota Timberwolves scrambling to replace injured players, the Blazers are still in eighth place in the Western Conference. Add to that that Portland has reached nearly the mid-point of the season while maintaining a .500 record, a feat that I didn’t think they’d accomplish, and things could clearly be a whole lot worse.
Optimistic fans will look at the last five games, all losses by less no more than six, and think that they are simply the growing pains of a young team. You have to walk before you can run. You have to lose some close games before you can figure out a way to consistently win.
Pessimistic fans will have a different attitude, of course. They will have one of two reactions. Either they’ll think that the Blazers are better than they are playing right now, and by losing five have run themselves out of the Playoffs, or they’ll say that beating Miami, New York, and Memphis all in the span of 10 days was a fluke, this team is garbage, and we can expect more losses to bad teams until GM Neil Olshey gets up the gumption to trade everybody but Damian Lillard and start over from scratch.
As most black and white, either/or comparisons go, the reality of the situation is somewhere in the middle. These losses are learning losses. This team will be able to compete in a season or maybe two with the core of Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum, but with the auxiliary pieces Portland has right now, they probably won’t get very far.
The reaction that we should be looking for though, isn’t from the fans. Following the last few games, the Blazer locker room has been pretty subdued, the team has not been overly excited to talk about the game or their play, answers have been short and of the NBA Rhetoric 101 variety, eye contact has been limited.
Following Saturday’s game, I asked Nicolas, Damian, and LaMarcus about taking pride in being at .500 near the mid-point in the season, an unexpected occurrence considering what expectations were coming into 2012-13. All three came to the same conclusion. They think this team should be better. They think they should have won a couple more close games. And no, being at .500 isn’t something to pat yourself on the back about when a week ago you were five games over .500.
Lillard did say that Portland’s record has swung quickly from good to not so good, and it could easily swing back in the other direction. And when I asked Stotts the question about taking some measure of pride in a .500 record, he did say that if I’d asked him that same question before the season started he would have said yes, being .500 with 42 games left in the season would be something to shoot for. So, there has both been an uptick in expectations internally and a development of expectation management from members of the team.
Both of those things are good. If a team comes into a season with low expectations and then doesn’t adjust those expectations when things get better, they’re just going through the motions. However, when expectations are unduly raised based on a small sample size, and they aren’t checked by reality, a team can make a silly decision.
By having the foresight to see that this season isn’t the end all be all of this iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers, Olshey, Stotts, et al. won’t go trying to kill themselves to stop this losing streak and make this “Playoff run” a real thing. By the same token, having the fortitude to say this team is good and should compete and 40 minutes a night isn’t too many minutes for a core of professional basketball players none of whom is within spitting distance of 30, this team is saying there is nothing wrong with trying to win and trying to rebuild at the same time.
Personally, I tend towards optimism when it comes to the Blazers, this season and basically every other. I appreciate the fight and determination of this team to continue playing when they’re down 20, and to keep fighting up until the final possession. I also appreciate that they are down but never out, as cliche as that is. But I do know that part of the reason Portland gets down but makes it close is because there are no other options. The Blazers bench does nothing, or almost nothing, and as much as Luke Babbitt has emerged as a middling long-range shooter, he isn’t going to save this team.
My blogging colleague over at Portland Roundball Society Danny Nowell made a comment to me after Saturday’s game that I found rather telling. He said, it would have been better for Portland to lose to Milwaukee by 21 than to lose to them by six. I agree. Cutting your losses, putting your starters on the bench in a blow out, is a viable competitive option in the NBA. The season is long; injuries are a thing to avoid. But you bench your starters Saturday, and the Blazer don’t lose by 21, they lose by 41. There’s something to be said about saving face and maintaining a marketable product.
So that’s were my optimism and my pessimism collide. Portland’s not a bad team, in fact, they are much better than anybody predicted. They’re also not deep enough to win many games in which the first seven minutes are totally stagnant. I want to see the Blazers get better, win more games, and get into the Playoffs. They’re going to be too good to get a high draft pick anyway, so why not get in the post season and start building that experience that all young teams need.
Mr. Bill Murray made it out of Groundhog’s Day by figuring out the correct combinations of likes and dislikes of Andy McDowell that would convince her to fall in love with him. There’s a message in there (a message other than that creepy stalker-ish one that is).
If the Blazers want to get out of their Groundhog’s Day, they’ll have to come up with some combination of players and situations that significantly changes a major outcome. Sadly, this team is basically saddled with what they have. Changes will be made, but not until the off-season.
In the words of Phil Connors: “It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be grey, and it’s going to last you for the rest of you life.”
How’s that for optimism?
Portland will try to break out of their slump Monday back at the RG against the suddenly hot Washington Wizards.
Couple of quick things:
- This loss is going to get blamed on Nolan Smith, there are no two ways about it. I find it hard to pin the whole thing on a guy who played a grand total of two minutes and 37 seconds. The numbers are hard to dispute though. Saturday night, Nolan checked in for Damian Lillard with 5:09 remaining in the opening frame and the score 15-12 in favor of the Bucks. Over the course of the next two and a half minutes, Nolan coughed the ball up three times and Milwaukee went on a staggering 15-0 run. Nolan looked lost at sea during his entire stretch, which is too bad because even if he didn’t do much to Kyrie Irving in Wednesday’s game against the Cavs, he didn’t get eaten alive. When Smith checked out, the Blazers were down 30-12, and though it wasn’t all she wrote, Portland had their work cut out for them the rest of the way.
- Fouls were a bit of issue for Portland, or should I say fouls that weren’t called were an issue for Portland. Damian Lillard took and missed a one-footer from 27 feet while trying to draw contact that wasn’t called. Post game he said that he felt contact and that the contact had been called for the Bucks so he figured he’d get a call. The call didn’t come. Dame said it was a frustrating moment, but that it also wasn’t the first miss of the evening for the officiating crew. It wouldn’t be the last either. Down four and with the ball out of bounds, Portland ran a play we’ve seen a few times, an elbow screen to free LaMarcus Aldridge for a back to the basket isolation. LA tripped over Ekpe Udoh on his way to the low block, Nicolas Batum in-bounded the ball towards LaMarcus as he was falling, the ball sailed out of bounds, a foul was not called, and the Bucks regained possession. The replay clearly showed LA tripping over Udoh as well as some serious hand contact from Udoh. Whether either action, the tripping or jersey grabbing, warranted a foul call was certainly up to the discretion of the referees (that is their job after all). They decided against blowing the whistle. Post game, Stotts called the incident unfortunate. We’ll have to wait and see if that ends up costing him some percentage of his pay check.
- Standings Watch: Portland sits in 8th tied record-wise with Houston. If it were to come down to Portland and Houston, the Blazers would be in thanks to having the head-to-head tiebreaker.