The Phoenix Suns defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 102-98, at the Rose Garden on Tuesday night, dropping Portland's record to 25-29. The Blazers have now lost six straight games.
"I wouldn't say that [the season] is slipping away but the window of opportunity is kind of closing on us," Blazers guard Damian Lillard admitted, and not much more needed to be said. "For us to drop this one, it hurt."
The Blazers, needing a victory badly, lost to the worst team in the Western Conference after recent road losses to the New Orleans Hornets and Orlando Magic, also among the NBA's worst teams. After Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard spent the All-Star break stressing defense, Portland conceded the first 12 points of the game, allowed the Suns to shoot 60 percent in the first half, and never once held a lead.
"Briefly, it's very disappointing with the defense in the first half, obviously it's a slow start," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "We can't afford to do that. The second half, they scored 39, we did what we had to do. But we can't come out and let teams execute and do what they want to do."
"That's been our thing all year, come out flat, and as the game progresses get better," Blazers forward J.J. Hickson said, after finishing with a team-high 25 points and 16 rebounds. "With the team we have and the players we have, we can't afford to play like that. It's cost us all year. Tonight is another example."
Playing without Wesley Matthews, who sat with an ankle injury, Blazers guards not named Lillard combined for nine points on three-for-15 shooting. It was a comedy of errors and empty minutes that was capped by a panicky corner three on a critical possession by Nolan Smith that looked like a drunk dunk contest alley-oop lob, bouncing off the top of the backboard.
With Matthews out and Nicolas Batum shooting poorly, Lillard looked as aggressive off the dribble as we've seen him, attacking regularly off the dribble to earn himself five free throw attempts. His turnovers spiked to six as he drove and drove, unable to draw or sell the contact made as he got in the protected area. A number of drives ended with him looking for a foul and the Suns pushing the ball the other way.
"If there something to be said out there, or if I feel like I didn't get a call or something went the other way, I'm going to speak up because I want to win the game," Lillard said. "I felt like it was times where it should have been a call."
Those soft words practically qualify as a rant by Lillard's subdued standards. He finished with 24 points (on eight-for-19 shooting) and seven assists. The losing is getting old and the upcoming schedule is daunting.
"We need to be going uphill and right now we're falling more games below .500," Lillard told Blazersedge. "With 25 wins, we need to start winning some games now. If the other teams we're competing with win some games and get a lead on us, it will be tough."
Portland now sits 3.5 games back with 28 games to play. 20 of those 28 are against teams that are currently in the playoff picture and two others are against the Lakers, who currently hold the same record as the Blazers. The hope, perhaps, was that the Blazers would find Tuesday to be the ideal momentum-turning game after a five-game losing streak and nearly a week off thanks to the All-Star break. Instead, Matthews wasn't ready to go, Batum says he is still bothered by his ailing right wrist, and the Blazers picked up right where they left off on the road, failing to display maximum effort and concentration on the defensive end. How bad will this get?
"We're well aware that it can get out of hand," Hickson said.
One theory -- that the Blazers lacked energy because Aldridge and Lillard were kept busy during All-Star Weekend -- was roundly dismissed.
"I wouldn't use the All-Star Game as a crutch right now," Hickson argued. "We just played bad basketball as a team. The first half, the first quarter, definitely cost us."
"The first day I got back I was tired," Lillard said. "Today I was fine. I slept a lot the past few days. I was ready to play. As a team we just didn't have it to start the game."
The Suns dominated inside, winning the rebounding battle, 51-37, and claiming a number of offensive rebounds after the ball hit the hardwood. Marcin Gortat, Luis Scola and Jermaine O'Neal combined for 39 points and 21 rebounds. The rarely-used, often-terrible Wesley Johnson came out of absolutely nowhere to have his best game of the season, scoring 14 points and grabbing eight rebounds, which both doubled his previous season-highs.
"I think he did an outstanding job considering all the time he hadn't played," Suns interim coach Lindsey Hunter said of Johnson. "I was really proud of how he performed. Hopefully he can keep it going and build on this."
Goran Dragic was Phoenix's conductor, finishing with 16 points and a career-high 18 assists while collapsing Portland's defense repeatedly and finding his bigs for quick dump-offs. The Suns' lead shrank to just two points with 20 seconds remaining after Aldridge, who finished with 23 points and five rebounds, hit two free throws. Dragic hit both of his free throws on the other end to ice the win by making it a two-possession game.
"It was really fun," Dragic said simply of his big night.
The Suns defended intelligently down the stretch, selling out hard on Lillard and overplaying Batum on the perimeter, effectively forcing the Blazers to rotate the ball to Smith, who shot zero-for-four on the night and wasn't prepared for the responsibility suddenly thrust upon him. The Blazers made just one field goal in the final 3:56 of the game, with Smith missing two shots and a key free throw at the 1:28 mark during that closing stretch.
"They jumped me three times in that last stint, last 35 or 40 seconds, they really sent two people at me so I gave the ball up," Lillard told Blazersedge.
"Whatever play we were running, they guarded, [Smith] was in the corner and the ball swung to him," Stotts explained. "It's not like we designed for it to go to him."
Indeed, Smith should have been Matthews, or at least would have been on most nights. That's the difference between a 38.0 percent shooter with 271 attempts on the season and a 20.8 percent shooter with 24 attempts on the season. It's a terribly big difference.
"He was effective in there and gave us a chance defensively he was able to pick up their point guards," Stotts said of his decision to ride Smith rather than turn to Luke Babbitt or one of his other backcourt options down the stretch. "Force them to play a bigger guard on Damian. I thought it went well, the main reason [Smith was in] was to have another ball-handler in there and I thought Nolan gave us good defensive energy on the point guards."
The arguments against Smith being on the court, especially on offense, are certainly there to be made. As sad as it sounds, there wasn't a single other option who distinguished himself enough to warrant a true complaint.
This one goes down as another loss in a growing streak and yet another in which poor early play did the Blazers in. At this point, Portland doesn't even attempt to offer explanations for the slow starts, settling for more laments instead.
"That's been the story all year," Hickson said.
Lillard echoed: "We've been doing it to ourselves all season."
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout and it was a very impressive crowd given the opponent.
- Lillard received his Rookie of the Month trophy for January. Blazers GM Neil Olshey stood next to him. Blaze the Trail Cat was again frozen out of the photo opportunity.
- Here's J.J. Hickson saying he "meant no harm" with a series of Valentine's Day tweets that some found offensive.
- Candace Buckner of The Columbian noted a few additional Blazers Twitter issues on Tuesday.
- Here's Hickson discussing his position in advance of Thursday's trade deadline.
- Nolan Smith on his future with the Blazers: "I don't really think too much about it. Come Thursday, if I pick up my phone and my agent is calling me crazy and something's going to happen, it happens."
- When Luis Scola is hitting crazy scoop shots like that...
- Lillard on the failed switch-flipping of late, after the Blazers mounted so many comebacks earlier in the season. "We're not the Miami Heat, we can't just turn on the switch and come back and win the game. We turn on the switch and we finish it sometimes, and other times we run out of gas. Tonight it was too late."
- Matthews' stubbornness about this team's lot in the NBA life has been tone-setting this year. His absence was obvious in a down locker room after this loss.
- Lillard seemed a little frustrated with the officials and the losing but he wasn't totally down and out. "I do think we have the type of team with our backs up against the wall we rise to the occasion. It might be late in the season but the next game, boom, we don't want to lose another one and we have to figure it out."
- Lillard also said that it wasn't time for urgency-inducing speeches: "Guys have been saying it for a few weeks now."
- If Jermaine O'Neal signs another contract, he needs to take Michael Beasley out for a nice steak dinner. O'Neal has clearly come to the realization that Beasley will miss virtually every shot he takes and has honed in on getting a jump on potential offensive rebounding position. That veteran savvy.
- After seemingly months without one, there was another jumbotron proposal. She said yes! But only after turning to the jumbotron to wave both of her hands at the screen. Apparently the proposer had an earpiece in his ear while proposing as well. What a bizarre moment.
- Apologies on the brief(er) write-up, it's trade deadline week.
- At some point in the near future I'll have a feature on Lillard from All-Star Weekend, which includes thoughts from his fellow rookies on his progress and also his thoughts on what he needs to improve on as he heads into next season. As busy as the few days are for these guys, my impression was that the experience gave him the chance to reflect on his opportunity in Portland, one unmatched elsewhere among rookies around the league, and also that he got a taste of where the league's best players are at with their games. In particular, he mentioned being around and seeing Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday. Pretty good company to keep.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Briefly, it's very disappointing with the defense in the first half, obviously it's a slow start. Down 12-0, had a lot to do with the first half. We gave up 63 points in the first half and 60 percent shooting. We can't afford to do that. The second half, they scored 39, we did what we had to do. But we can't come out and let teams execute and do what they want to do.
No Wesley Matthews
Obviously Wes is really important to our team defensively and offensively. He competes. Maybe it does. I don't want to use that as an excuse. Wes is a very important part of the team. We showed that we can still compete without him. If he's not in there, everybody has to step up a little bit.
Season slipping away?
No, we've got 28 games to go. Nothing is slipping away. We've got the Lakers on Friday and we've got to go play.
Going with Nolan Smith down the stretch
Well he was effective in there and gave us a chance defensively he was able to pick up their point guards. Force them to play a bigger guard on Damian. I thought it went well, the main reason was to have another ball-handler in there and I thought Nolan gave us good defensive energy on the point guards.
Nolan Smith caught in the corner on offense
Whatever play we were running, they guarded, he was in the corner and the ball swung to him. It's not like we designed for it to go to him.
Interior pounding by Jermaine O'Neal and Marcin Gortat
They're both very effective. I thought their rebounding was good. They had a balanced attack. I thought Dragic had a very effective game, particularly in the first quarter. In general, I thought across the board they played well. Scola did his thing, Gortat and O'Neal did their thing. Team effort offensively.
Did you get "edge" you wanted?
I thought we came out with good energy and we had two or three lay-ups that didn't go in. They made their jump shots and it kind of deflated us a little bit. Because of the slow start we got on our heels, didn't quite have it for a spell there because of the circumstances of the game at that point.
I've said this before but as a coach you strive for consistency. Hopefully that consistency is at a high level. It's frustrating that we weren't able to play at a high level of energy in the first half, but that happens a lot. I think in general the games get more intense as the game goes along, that's kind of human nature. I'd like it to be a little more pronounced in the first half.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter