You had to figure it was gonna catch up to them sooner than later.
First-year Portland coach Terry Stotts has been riding his starters like pack mules, giving them all the weight to carry during the first half of the NBA season. As a result, the Trail Blazers have put together some impressive -- some would say improbable -- victories. And, also as a result, the team has lately begun showing fatigue that we really ought to have seen coming for months.
The Blazers had strung together a nice stretch, winning 12 out of 15 games during a one-month span from Dec. 10 to Jan. 10. They started that string with five consecutive wins and ended it with four in a row, each of those four coming in tight, down-to-the-wire contests that the Blazers managed to pull out, including a 92-90 victory over the Miami Heat that included two 3-pointers inside the final minute by shooting guard Wesley Matthews.
Since then, Portland has dropped four in a row, each of those also coming in tight, down-to-the-wire games, but with the Blazers simply looking too tired to come up with enough heroics down the stretch.
I suppose some of it could be chalked up to probability -- play in enough close games that are decided in the final minutes, and you're bound to lose a handful here and there. Portland's four recent losses have been by an average of 4.75 points, including a 115-111 defeat in overtime at Denver. The four wins that preceded that stretch were by an average of 3.75 points, including a 125-119 overtime victory against the Orlando Magic.
The real problem, though, is still Portland's serious lack of depth. I've been saying for months that playing the starters this much would eventually catch up with the Blazers, and I believe we've been seeing proof of that in the past four losses. I've also been saying for months that Portland is a no-doubt playoff team if it can manage to acquire some depth, or see one or two of its young reserves emerge.
So far no one really has, but it's tough to fault them when they're not getting much of a chance. Rookie Meyers Leonard, out with an ankle injury since the end of December, leads Portland's bench players with an average of 16.6 minutes per game. Point guard Ronnie Price has contributed very little statistically in his 13.7 minutes per game; Sasha Pavlovic and Victor Claver are next at 12.8 and 12.7 minutes, but Claver has only appeared in 18 games, having spent a fair amount of time in the NBA's D-League. And next is Luke Babbitt, a small forward who can't do much beyond shooting 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, Nicolas Batum is playing 39 minutes per game; rookie point guard Damian Lillard 38.4; LaMarcus Aldridge 37.9; Matthews 35.3; and J.J. Hickson 29.4.
It is, quite simply, too much, night in and night out, to expect these guys to produce at the same level without getting enough rest during the grueling stretches of an NBA season.
And the problem is this: Portland might, indeed, be a playoff team if some viable depth emerges or is acquired. But if that doesn't happen? Stotts will have been running his top five guys into the ground for nothing, during a season that was -- going into it, at least -- supposed to be a time of rebuilding.
The time has come for the Blazers to make a move, either by acquiring some off-the-bench contributors or by allowing the guys they have to play enough that they can become contributors themselves.
Here's a look at the rest of Portland's current homestand, which began with Wednesday's 93-88 loss to the Cavaliers:
(Games at the Rose Garden in Portland; all times Pacific)
- Saturday, Jan. 19: Portland vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 7 p.m.
- Monday, Jan. 21: Portland vs. Washington Wizards, 7 p.m.
- Wednesday, Jan. 23: Portland vs. Indiana Pacers, 7 p.m.
- Saturday, Jan. 26: Portland vs. Los Angeles Clippers, 7 p.m.
Sources:Trail Blazers stats --
Adam Sparks has followed the Portland Trail Blazers since the early 1980s, and has written about the team as a freelancer since 2009.
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