After one of the greatest playoff performances in NBA History, Damian Lillard trudging off the court, may have been the moment that changes this Portland Trail Blazers franchise.
A franchise player and one of the greatest shooters to ever grace an NBA court had just had the performance of his life. 55 points and 12 made three-pointers. 17 points in double overtime, including game-tying shots in both regulation and overtime. This was a performance for the ages from Dame. But, at the base of it all, was a harsh reminder that all this came in a loss.
Defensively, the Blazers were a mess. National reporters tweeted numerous observations about the team’s defense, rotations, and effort. This was an ugly performance in so many ways. The main thing that was highlighted was the lack of on and off-court support for Dame.
Blazers twitter always seems to be split when apportioning blame. Media, fan accounts, and fans themselves are split on whether it’s Coach Terry Stotts fault, or if the blame should lie with GM Neil Olshey.
Both have been part of one of the great eras of Blazers basketball, where they have been one of the more consistent teams in the entire NBA when it comes to making the playoffs.
But, with Dame now firmly in the superstar category in the NBA, both the coaching and decision-making by the front office haven’t been of a high standard. Making the playoffs is one thing, but getting to just one conference finals in eight years when you have a top ten player in the league, isn’t good enough.
Olshey has made some great draft picks. Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, and all the other excellent choices Olshey made in the second round come to mind. He has got value where a lot of other teams haven’t. But, when it came to in-season trades or free agency, Olshey has made questionable decisions.
This season, he signed athletic swingman Derrick Jones Jr to a two-year $20 million deal, using the entirety of the Blazers mid-level exception. Jones has only played ten minutes in this playoff series and actually fell out of the Blazers rotation during the regular season, even though the team was ranked a lowly 29th on defense.
Using the team’s precious midlevel on a guy who doesn’t play at all is a massive failure when considering the limited resources they had last summer. Is this on Olshey or Stotts?
Olshey deserves some blame for the lack of two-way play on this roster.
But, Stotts is the coach and also needs to take some responsibility. Olshey may have constructed the roster, but being 29th in defense, with one of the worst defenses of all-time, that’s largely on Stotts. Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr, Nassir Little, Harry Giles, Jusuf Nurkic and then Gary Trent Jr and Norman Powell are all defensive pieces.
Defensive rotations and schemes lie with the coach. Yes, he may not have had the best personnel to work with, but there were lottery teams who were tanking all season who had a better team defense. Lots of the teams that rank higher than the Blazers on defense don’t have half the players mentioned above that can play defense.
This loss in game five will have serious implications for this team. If Dame can pull out two wins to somehow bring them back from the brink of elimination, it likely won’t make a difference for the direction that they decide to go in this summer.
If they do go through, it will be because of Dame’s brilliance. In the second round, they will face Phoenix Suns guard pairing Devin Booker and Chris Paul, or the defending champion duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It’s hard to see the Blazers moving past either team with how poorly they’ve played in this series.
The game five loss exposed the Blazers lack of a defensive identity, and the inability of players not named Damian Lillard to make plays.
The Nuggets are missing their second and fourth-best players, as well as their best guard defender, yet the Blazer still find themselves down three games to two.
This series has exposed the Blazers coaching and personnel. Whether you blame the coach or the GM, this loss was a massive wake-up call for the franchise.
Even if the Blazers scrape through and win this series, there will be changes this summer, be that a firing a trade or both.
That moment where Dame walked sadly off the floor, may have been the moment that signaled a change in the direction of this team.