The last time the Trail Blazers opened their season with three consecutive home losses, Rick Adelman was their point guard and Sidney Wicks was a promising rookie power forward. That was 1971-72 and the team won only 18 times, leading to Coach Rolland Todd being fired 56 games into the season.
But after Portland squandered Damian Lillard's franchise-record 60-point effort Friday night in a 119-115 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, its record fell to 3-6 -- 0-3 at home -- leaving questions lingering about the team's slow start.
Be mindful, though, that it's not just one thing that's causing the early season problems for this team. It's several things. For example:
The Blazers opened the season with five big men on their roster: Hassan Whiteside, Skal Labissiere, Jusuf Nurkic, Pau Gasol and Zach Collins. Obviously, Nurkic and Gasol were injured and still are – but Collins is out for several months with a shoulder injury and Labissiere limped off the court Friday with an ankle sprain. On top of that, Whiteside is still nursing ankle and knee aches. Without interior size, the Blazers are taking a beating in the paint and allowed 16 offensive rebounds and 31 second-chance points against the Nets.
While Lillard was spectacular, CJ McCollum continued to struggle with his shot. He made only 4 of his 18 shots from the field and missed both his three-point attempts. He came into the game shooting 40 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from three-point range. That's going to get better because it always does, but in the interim, it's contributing to the struggle. Lillard needs help.
The Blazers aren't getting consistent ball movement and aren't passing well. They had only 11 assists Friday and are at the bottom of the league in average assists per game. That's not unusual for this team, with the starting guards generating their own shots frequently, but when things aren't going well it makes it difficult to get other players involved.
On any night, there is very little certainty about what the bench will provide. Production is often up and down with Anfernee Simons the only consistent scorer among the reserves.
This was Lillard's game and he almost single-handedly carried the Trail Blazers to victory. A night after playing 39 minutes in Los Angeles against the Clippers, he played 40 minutes and 21 seconds vs. the Nets, making 19 of his 33 shots overall and 7 of 16 from three-point range. And oh yes, he was 15-15 from the foul line and had four rebounds and five assists.
"We tried box, zone, blitz, we threw the kitchen sink at him," New Jersey Coach Kenny Atkinson said. "He would just make incredible shots. And we kept saying, ‘He's going to tire out eventually. He played 39 minutes last night and eventually he's going to fatigue.' I don't know if that was the case, it felt like he kept making shots, but I thought getting the ball out of his hands midway through the fourth quarter helped us."
Lillard kept his team in the game with 34 points in the second half. Then, he almost pulled off a miracle one-man rally after Portland fell behind by 10 with 1:41 left. He scored seven straight points in the next 61 seconds to pull Portland within three, but the Nets ran the clock down before Kyrie Irving banked in a nine-footer to hike the lead back to five with 17.8 seconds left.
Then Lillard's three beat the buzzer to make him the first Trail Blazer ever to score 60.
"I think we're in position to win games and we're in position in the third quarter," Lillard said. "And in the fourth quarter, you've got to be present, mentally and physically. I think we compete. I think we're together. We might be last in the league, defensively, in the fourth quarter. If you're in every game like we are – we haven't been blown out – so you're last in defensive rating in the fourth quarter, you're not going to win those games. I think that's where we're struggling right now."
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