Over their past 13 games, the Portland Trail Blazers are 5-8, and will limp their way into All-Star Weekend. After yesterday’s disappointing loss to the Clippers (which now scarily drops the team to fifth in the Western Conference), the Blazers have some soul-searching to do during their time off.
When the team roared off to its incredible 22-4 start, things were clicking. I was particularly pleased with the team’s attention to detail and execution, something that I chalk up to Head Coach Terry Stotts’ influence. After three painful losses to upper-echelon teams (the Pacers, the Thunder, and the Clippers) in their last four games, the Blazers’ late game execution, or lack thereof, is becoming more and more noticeable.
The fourth quarters against both the Thunder and the Clippers particularly stood out, as they were a veritable gold mind of turnovers, defensive breakdowns, and poor shot selection. Not content with just the eye test, I dug further into the numbers.
During the fourth quarters of these past 13 games, the Blazers are shooting a jaw-droppingly atrocious 35.5% from the field (dead last in the league by nearly 2%). On the other side of the spectrum, the Blazers’ opponent from last night, the Clippers, are shooting a robust 50.6% from the field during their last 13 games.
That’s a different team, though, so for a more sob-worthy comparison, consider that during the entire month of November the Blazers shot 47.1% from the field during fourth quarters (seventh in the league). This represents a Grand Canyon’s worth of difference between the team earlier in the season, and now. That difference, 11.6%, is significantly larger than the difference in shooting percentage between the best (the Heat) and worst (the Bucks) teams’ shooting percentages this season.
The Blazers’ vaunted three-point attack is also wilting as of late, as the team has made only 29.7% (fifth worst in the league) of its three-point attempts during fourth quarters during these 13 games. For a team that is currently fourth in the league at shooting threes with an average of 38.0% on the season, this is a devastating drop-off. It has seemed like the threes are just not falling at the end of games, and the numbers are clearly backing this observation up.
For a team that 1) relies on its offense so heavily and 2) relies on threes to carry that offense, these late game dips in performance are truly a killer. It is then no surprise that the team has looked so shaky recently. The late game play is the largest contributing factor.
Generally a team goes as its stars go, so perhaps no game exemplifies these struggles better than the recent Thunder game. During the fourth quarter, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard shot a combined 0-8 from the field – not one basket. In fact, they shot a combined 1-17 during the entire second half. Let those numbers sink in. While only one game, they sure are scary on their own.
That’s part of the problem – I find that it’s human nature to assume that things will revert back to the norm on their own. After some of the recent losses, I’ve definitely caught myself saying, “Oh, Aldridge and Lillard don’t normally do that badly in the fourth.” Or, “Our threes will start falling soon.” As the last 13 games show, these problems won’t quickly fix themselves. It’s going to take time and effort to right the ship, and hopefully the All-Star break will provide the team with time to do so.
It is readily apparent that there is a problem, but identifying the causes is a little harder. For starters, the beginning of the fourth quarter is normally manned by the reserves, so there is a definite drop-off in talent from when the starters play.
For the Blazers specifically, I see a few specific areas that can be improved. Lazy passes that lead to turnovers have been a killer recently, and it is to the sad point where I expect a few every fourth quarter now. These are easy mistakes to fix, so hopefully the team can regain its focus to clean them up.
The team’s shot selection has just seemed, for lack of a better word, “off” at the end of games as well. In practical terms, this means too many contested shots, and too many shots deep in the shot clock. The team’s ball movement, which was impeccable earlier in the season, seems all but abandoned at the end of games. For as good of a job as Stotts has done facilitating ball movement in the offense throughout the season, now is his time to step up and make the necessary fixes.
For a team that was only trying to make the playoffs at the beginning of the season, sitting in the fifth seed in the Western Conference at the All-Star break is not a bad thing. On the other hand, after glimpsing just how good the team could be during their run at the beginning of the season, it is somewhat disheartening to see the team stumble now. Hopefully after the break, the team can roar out of the gates again.