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.
From Haynes’ report :
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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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @KDonhoops
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There's been bad blood brewing between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors all season long, beginning with a shoving match between centers Andrew Bogut and DeAndre Jordan and a weird sideline incident between Blake Griffin and Warriors coach Mark Jackson on opening night, the curious choice not to share pregame chapel services and some Christmas squabbling that resulted in a Griffin ejection that the NBA later deemed unjust . It seemed a good bet, then, that sparks might fly when the two physical Western Conference contenders renewed their unpleasantries on Wednesday, and while nothing particularly explosive popped off, there were a couple of moments when something might have; in what will probably come as unsurprising news, both involved Griffin.
The first came late in the third quarter, when Griffin and Warriors forward Draymond Green got tangled up away from the ball during a final-minute Golden State possession, resulting in the two big men hitting the deck, Green getting called for an offensive foul, and the Clips getting the ball with the shot clock off and the chance to increase their two-point lead:
The Clippers would capitalize on their extra possession, with Chris Paul hitting a 3-pointer at the horn off a Griffin kickout to put L.A. up five heading into the fourth quarter. (Naturally.)
The second came with just under nine minutes remaining in the fourth, with the Clippers holding a six-point lead, on another away-from-the-ball tangle. This time, after hedging on a side pick-and-roll, Griffin ran back to the paint and picked up Warriors center Jermaine O'Neal as Green posted up Glen Davis. O'Neal pushed Griffin aside as Green entered the paint against "Big Baby," and it looked like Griffin's response somewhat oversold the contact that O'Neal made, which the 17-year veteran didn't appear to appreciate:
After an official timeout following a foul call on "Big Baby," Griffin headed back to the L.A. bench. O'Neal followed, chirping at Griffin enough that he wound up being hit with a technical foul, giving Darren Collison a freebie to halve the impact of the two shots Green was about to take.
Life proceeded largely without incident thereafter, as the Clips put their foot on the gas down the stretch, impelled by a mammoth follow slam by Griffin that provided a stirring reminder that while dunking certainly isn't all Blake does anymore, he is still very good at it:
L.A. closed the game on a 16-7 run over the final five minutes to earn a 111-98 win behind another stellar game from Griffin. The All-Star power forward scored 30 points on 13 for 28 shooting, 15 rebounds, three assists and three steals in 42 minutes, leading seven Clippers in double-figures. It was his 24th straight game with 20 or more points , tied for the seventh-longest such streak of the last six seasons, and it helped propel the Clips to their ninth straight win, an NBA-best run that has put Doc Rivers' squad in sole possession of third place in the Western Conference at 46-20, just one game back of the Oklahoma City Thunder and three games behind the No. 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
While it was all good for Griffin on the court on Wednesday, things apparently weren't quite so rosy between him and O'Neal after the game, according to Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times :
Griffin was posing for pictures when he was approached by the angry backup center for the Warriors.
O’Neal got right into Griffin’s face.
“Why you going to walk up on me like that?” Griffin asked O’Neal. “Leave that [expletive] on the court. Leave that [expletive] on the court.”
O’Neal snarled, shook Griffin’s hand and walked away.
“Man, I’m a monster off the court,” O’Neal said, turning away.
Before Griffin walked into the postgame interview room, he responded.
“Man, get out of here with that,” Griffin said.
Now, evidently, the face-to-face wasn't as deathly serious as some are making it out to be:
This JO/Blake thing is getting played in weird ways this morning. He wasn't waiting for Blake outside the LR. — Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) March 13, 2014
JO walked down the hallway past Blake who was already there. Then he turned around and came back. They had words. They left. — Paul Flannery (@Pflanns) March 13, 2014
But while it might not have reached Z-Bo-and-Perk levels of near-fisticuffs (or even Z-Bo-and-Blake levels of actual choking), a Clippers spokesman told Turner that the team "will report the incident to the NBA." For his part, Griffin didn't comment to reporters on his chat with O'Neal, telling Dan Woike of the Orange County Register that it “was between me and him.”
Whatever was or wasn't said and done in the hallway after the game, it's undeniable that there's some festering feudin' between these two teams, who — as luck would have it — would square off in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs if the postseason started today. While the Clips certainly have at least some distaste for the Dubs — Doc said after the win that he "was looking forward to this game, because you kind of felt like some of that junk would happen in the game, and we came out of it" — there sure seems to be more vitriol on Golden State's side of things. From Diamond Leung of the Bay Area News Group :
"There's a lot of different theatrics that go on within a basketball game just in general, but this series on both sides tops the cake, I think," center Andrew Bogut said.
"We'll be as physical as they do it, and theatrics take place after that."
And the leading man in those "theatrics," fro the Warriors' point of view, appears to be the man no less an authority than DeMarcus Cousins once called "an actor." From Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle :
Warriors forward David Lee said it's no coincidence that Griffin was at the center of much of the extracurricular physicality.
"It's no coincidence is an understatement," Lee said. "I've got no other comment on that."
Sometimes, of course, a "no comment" is a pretty strong comment, and it's one shared by a number of observers of Griffin's penchant for finding himself in the middle of scrums . Whether opponents are mounting extra-physical responses to Griffin because he's cheap-shotting them first or because they just don't know what else to do with him , it sure doesn't seem to be working these days, as Blake's playing the best ball of his NBA career and the Clippers — owners of the NBA's best offense, second-best record and 10th-best defense since Jan. 1, according to NBA.com's stat tool — are looking increasingly like an honest-to-goodness contender in the Western Conference.
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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!
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