As Nicolas Batum fired up a desperation final shot to try and save a victory over the Golden State Warriors, Mo Williams stood with his arms out wondering why Batum didn’t look his way as he had a much cleaner look at the basket.
We’re all standing with our arms out Mo, wondering where the season that looked like a redemption year for everyone in the organization from Paul Allen down to the t-shirt cannon guy went.
If you listen closely you can hear the air being let out of the Portland Trail Blazers hot air balloon that was once filled with hopes of an improbable division title and more importantly, home court advantage, which would have been the master key to Portland moving past the first round of the playoffs since a young Rasheed Wallace and an old Scottie Pippen fell apart to Shaq and Kobe in the final quarter of the 2000 Western Conference Finals.
Perhaps it’s time to admit that the Blazers overachieved before the All-Star break. Everything fell into place for the only basketball team in the Pacific Northwest during the first five months of the grind that is the regular season. Damian Lillard continued to prove why more kids should think about staying in college to refine their games, or at least hone in on specific skills because while his offense is increasingly fun to watch, his defense still leaves a ton to be desired. LaMarcus Aldridge was happy LaMarcus Aldridge, which is much better than cranky I want to leave town because I’m not getting what I want LaMarcus Aldridge. Robin Lopez was an incredible steal for GM Neil Olshey this past offseason and Mo Williams has given this team all it could have possibly hoped for.
So what has happened to quickly drop the morale of what was shaping up to be one of the best stories this season?
Two crushing losses to potential first round matchups certainly don’t help. The Blazers blew an 18 point lead to the Splash Brothers of Golden State on March 16th as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson figuratively lit on fire during the second half after Curry struggled to do anything offensively throughout most of the first half. In many ways this game was a microcosm of the Blazers season. Jump out ahead and then cruise to the finish line, only to see the lead evaporate without realizing what is happening.
The other brutal loss for the Blazers came back on March 9th on the road in Houston. The loss didn’t seem like a pattern of behavior in the moment because the Rockets are trending towards becoming a team that could sneak into the Western Conference Finals if they can sustain this level of play in May, but after witnessing the collapse against the Warriors, it’s hard to look back at that game and think that this is a team who has the possibility of advancing a round in the loaded Western Conference. The Rockets are currently sitting in the fourth spot of the West, 1.5 games up on Portland. Odds are home court advantage is going to swing that series if the Rockets and Blazers do indeed lockup in the first round.
Perhaps I’m jumping the gun with this column because there is still time for Terry Stotts to steer the ship back onto the calm waters this season started off on, but there quite a few signs to be concerned about:
1.) Since the calendar flipped to 2014, the Blazers are a whopping 2-14 against current Western Conference playoff teams. Their last victory against a current playoff team in the West came way back on January 18th in Dallas. The win was on the second of a brutal back-to-back (the Blazers defeated the Spurs in San Antonio the night before). They haven’t won consecutive games wince their five game winning streak at the end of February.
2.) In December, the Blazers ripped through 16 games while scoring an absurd 112.5 points per 100 possessions. That mark would easily lead the league over an entire season. (The Heat are currently first at 109.7.) Since that crazy month, their OffRtg dropped to 108.1 in January and 107 in February, which is totally acceptable! Those were still top seven numbers.
The real problem has been, no surprise here, the month of March. So far the Blazers have scored just 104.8 points per 100 possessions, which would put them in a tie for 12th with the Pelicans. So in four months the offense has went from scoring at a league high rate to just a little above the league average.
3.) Defensively the Blazers have come out strong since the All-Star break as they have only allowed 101.7 points per 100 possessions, which would rank eighth overall in The Association (tied with the Raptors). Prior to the break, the number was 105.7. So it looks like there is some improvement there right? Well not so fast.
During the Blazers five game winning streak at the end of February, they played four non-playoff teams and the Nets and subsequently held those teams to an average of 92.4 points. During the current five game losing streak to Western Conference playoff teams, Rip City has allowed a scary 109.2 points per game.
Luckily Portland only has to play current Western Conference playoff teams three more times this season (Grizzlies, Warriors and Clippers) and all three of those games are at the Rose Garden (there is a meeting with Phoenix in early April, which also happens to be a home game). Unfortunately they’re about embark on a five game road trip against four current Eastern Conference playoff teams, including a date with Miami. The Blazers will have the dreaded four games in five nights. Brutal.
The road trip might not be all bad news for Portland as LaMarcus Aldridge may return to the lineup, but even when Aldridge comes back (if he does) it’s hard to look at Portland and envision the type of ascension the Clippers and Rockets have taken since the break.
Like I said, there is still time for Stotts to right the ship, but Lillard isn’t going to morph into an average defender overnight and I would much rather rely on Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Jamal Crawford or (possibly) Matt Barnes to swing a playoff game than Wes Matthews.
There are peaks and valleys during every NBA season, the problem is that sometimes you don’t quite dig yourself out of the valley and right now the Blazers are currently stuck on a trail that is leading them straight to the top of a plateau.
Follow me on Twitter @ScottDargis