If you want to pile on the Portland Trail Blazers, to call them out as a defense-less band of prissy jump shooters, now is the time. The team has lost four straight games for the first time all season, with the latest coming in a borderline-embarrassing nationally televised turn against the West-leading San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night. It’s safe to assume that the team will not have home court advantage in the first round of next month’s opening round of the playoffs, as the fifth-seeded squad is currently two and a half games behind the ascending Houston Rockets for the fourth spot, and injuries to both LaMarcus Aldridge (back) and Mo Williams (hip) could linger well into spring.
This is part of the reason why the team, on the heels of that loss to San Antonio, decided to call a players-only meeting in the minutes before the media was set to descend on the Portland locker room on Wednesday night. According to Comcast’s Chris Haynes, Damian Lillard sparked the meeting, which was eventually led by a veteran triptych.
Earl Watson, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright were amongst some of the players to vocally address what was going on and what needed to change from here on out, we’re told.
“I just felt like it was something that needed to be said,” Lillard responded when ask why he initiated the dialogue. “At some point, it’s up to the players.”
The players maintain that there’s no desperation in the locker room. The session was solely meant as a means to eliminating issues from reoccurring.
“It’s time for a players-meeting when we see a little slippage,” Wright said. “Every team has two or three a year. I love the fact that this was the only one this season where guys really had to step up and be vocal leaders.
“And the best thing about it, we got vets in here that have been through things and young guys that have been through things as well and understand when it’s time to speak up. That’s what guys did tonight.”
The idea that Lillard, in just his second year, would initiate the meeting is good news. The fact that Watson and Wright – two veterans who don’t exactly dominate the minutes ledger in the team’s box scores – took over the meeting? That Mo Williams was injured but engaged with his young compatriots? This is all good news.
Seriously. This may be cold comfort to Blazers fans, a group that was disappointed to no end by the almost-there shortcomings of the Rick Adelman and Mike Dunleavy-led squads of lore, and one that has had to work through career-altering injuries to would-be franchise cornerstones like Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. A fan base that likely entered 2013-14 like most of us, wondering if Terry Stotts was the right coach to help Portland turn the corner, or if Lillard was due for a Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook-like ascension, or if Aldridge was long for the only NBA city he’s ever known.
The Blazers are right where they’re supposed to be, though.
The team’s exquisite offense (still ranked second in the league) and below average defense dictates as much, as does the squad’s point differential. The team is on pace for 53 wins in spite of playing most of its games in the fearsome Western Conference, and even this four game spell should be characterized as something that makes absolute and total sense. Sure, Stotts and company would have liked to at least take one or two games during this recent downturn, but road swings featuring games against Houston, Dallas, Memphis and San Antonio usually turn out this way.
Now this is all presuming LaMarcus Aldridge’s back woes don’t linger to an unsustainable degree. LMA fell hard on his back near the start of the second half on Wednesday, and had to be helped off the court. X-rays were negative, but that’s not exactly a clarion call announcing a clean bill of health. He doesn’t have a broken back. That’s … great?
The issue here is that these sorts of injuries linger, and no amount of rest, ice therapy, and “’ere, take four of these” can make a nasty back contusion go away with alacrity. Not with five weeks to go before the Trail Blazers (should current records sustain) tip off against Houston to start the team’s first postseason turn in three years. You don’t easily replace a big man managing over 23 points and 11 rebounds, one that provides spacing and release in Stotts’ fantastic half court offense. And nine of the team’s final 16 games come against playoff teams, with only one of those squads (Atlanta) looking like a pushover at this point.
Of course, this is still the same Trail Blazers team that took four out of five games following the All-Star break when Aldridge sat with a groin injury, including solid wins over Denver, Brooklyn, and Minnesota.
Perhaps that’s where these Blazers are best, playing that underdog card and looking to change minds. If you’ll allow the sportswriter-ese for a spell, it’s very possible that Portland doesn’t do well with expectations. Yes, “Houston,” “Dallas,” “Memphis” and “San Antonio” are the top reasons why Portland has lost four in a row, but dodgy starts out of the gate spell doom for a team that still doesn’t defend well. If the team returns with an initial chip on their figurative shoulder, things could turn around.
This squad isn’t as bad as this losing streak suggests, but they’re also not as good as that 22-4 start to the season implied. The crew remains world-beaters offensively, but when you pair that with middling-to-miserable defense, you can’t help but fall into the second tier.
And the Portland Trail Blazers, currently, are a second tier team. They shouldn’t be happy with giving themselves an early double-digit hole to the San Antonio Spurs on the road, but we all have to be mindful of Portland’s station. As fascinating as that offense is to watch at times, it still doesn’t absolve all sins.
Portland is what the team’s overall record states. A very good team, stuck in the middle of perhaps the greatest eight-team conference playoff bracket in NBA history.
It’s good that they’re talking, though.
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