Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs: Why the Blazers Aren't Succeeding

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Portland Trail Blazers easily tonight. Why aren't the Blazers succeeding?

The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the San Antonio Spurs tonight by a score of 103-90.  This marked the first time all season the Blazers have dropped 4 straight games.  The loss sent Portland's record to 42-23.  For those keeping track, the Blazers now sit only 1 game ahead of the Golden State Warriors for the 5th position in the Western Conference.

The most important--in some ways the only important--development this evening was LaMarcus Aldridge's nasty fall in the third period. He was helped from the court and did not return.  Reports so far tag the injury as a back contusion.  X-Rays were negative.  You can see video of the play and get updates as they develop through that link.  Obviously Aldridge's condition overshadows any single game on the schedule, so make sure you keep tabs on the update post.

This was the second game straight that the Blazers had no chance of winning.  They made a run or two but San Antonio remained in control of the contest at all times.  We're not used to seeing the Blazers like this.  All season long they've taught us that they're never out of contention...ever.  Pile a 30-point lead on them and they'll come back.  Demand a string of miraculous shots in the fourth period and they'll provide them.  Ask for 3 minutes of frenetic defense, shot blocks, steals, rebounds...you've got it.  This isn't a 48-minute squad.  They're not going to play perfectly.  But they're going to keep games close, fight for the win, and pull the bacon out of the fire most nights.

Except the last two nights the Blazers have been a 48-minute squad.  They've given us 48 minutes of "blah".  Games have been non-competitive.  Not only have wins failed to materialize, opportunities for wins have failed to materialize.

Rather than break down another game of this variety, it'll be more helpful to look at the macro causes of the recent slump (which includes more than the last two nights) and tuck in observations from this contest as necessary.

The Blazers sported a league-elite record 10 weeks into the season.  At that time we described them as a fine-tuned machine running full throttle.  Other teams made mistakes, left potential on the table, failed to execute, let effort flag.  The Blazers played at near-peak RPM every night, getting the most out of their resources.  Those resources weren't overwhelming, but 100% of good was enough to win.

Specifically the Blazers thrived in three areas: winning the three-point battle, maintaining an advantage on the offensive glass and scoring second-chance points, taking and hitting more free throws than the opponent.  Three other factors--low turnovers, high assists, and transition defense--provided secondary, but important, barometers of success.

You could keep the Blazers down in any of these areas for a while, but over the course of 48 minutes they were sure to surge.  But here's the key: they had to surge.  They had to do well in most, if not all, of these areas to get near enough to 100% potential and pull off the victory.  If the opponent could take away one primary factor for an entire game, or sometimes even if they could respond in kind on the other end, Portland's grip would become precarious.  Take away two or more strengths and the Blazers were in trouble.  They didn't have enough talent, enough depth, enough variety in skill to compensate.

The Blazers are no longer winning the three-point battle with any consistency.  The trend started before the All-Star break with Portland's defense collapsing to prevent a constant leak of paint points.  The gains they made in that area--they're now 29th in the league in points in the paint allowed instead of dead last--have been offset by losses beyond the arc.  Portland's three-point defense, once near the top of the league, now sits in the mushy middle.  Worse, Portland's own three-point shooting has dipped to "Top Ten" instead of "All-World".  Opponents are closing out better but the Blazers are also missing wide-open triples.  That kills an offense that's predicated on hitting those shots to spread the floor for passes and quality isolation attempts from the All-Stars.  Tonight's game was an extreme example, but it's hard to ignore Portland going 4-21 from the arc (19%) while San Antonio shot 11-24 (46%).  The Blazers need to invert those percentages and they're just not doing it.

The Blazers remain strong on the offensive glass but two faults have begun to creep in.  First, Portland's ace in the hole has been whipping out those boards for the quick three.  You will see Portland's offensive rebounders go back up for their own shot but they prefer to pass out or at least reset for another full-length possession.  When those kick-outs and offensive possessions aren't generating threes, the power of the rebound dims.  Early in the year the Blazers were devastating off the glass.  Now they're just dangerous.  Second,  the Blazers often allow opponents commensurate opportunities on their own offensive caroms.  Portland isn't generating those 14-9 offensive rebounding advantages, nor the +8 field goal attempts upon which they once thrived.  Tonight the Blazers grabbed 14 offensive rebounds but allowed the Spurs 15.  San Antonio attempted 88 shots while the Blazers attempted 83.

The Blazers did generate a 30-22 free throw advantage tonight and ended up with a 6-point advantage at the foul line, but this is the factor least in Portland's control.  That advantage can be taken away from them at any time by any number of factors: determined opponents, big stars on the other side of the ball, weird officiating, or even the refs calling the game in a style for which the Blazers aren't prepared.  We've seen this happen and the results aren't pretty.  It will happen more in the post-season when the opponent's caliber is as high as, maybe higher than, Portland's own.

During this stretch we've also seen the Blazers allow fast break points like they were getting commission on each one, commit uncharacteristic turnovers, and run isolation sets into the ground...either not passing the ball, not moving players to get open for passes, or not converting the shot when the pass is good.

Again, any major factor going wrong for the Blazers--even one--puts the game in doubt.  A major factor and a minor factor or two going south usually means a loss or having to pull the game out of the fire.  More than that is a disaster.  Lately we've seen games where the Blazers struggle, or at least fail to gain an advantage, in 3-4 of these areas, including tonight.  They have no chance when that happens.

And why do they have no chance?  Almost every Blazer strong point has to pay off because their defense is like a devil with a pitchfork chasing behind them at every turn.  If they stop, if they even flag a little bit, they get skewered.  Portland needs everybody working the defense just to be fairly bad.  As soon as they check out, they need 105%, 110%, some kind of miracle to reach the victory line.

Tonight the Blazers were bad (to the point of becoming eyesores) in 3 out of 4 quarters.  They actually picked up the "D" in the third following Aldridge's departure...some reserve of energy or camaraderie coming to the fore.  But I have the words "Horrible Defense" underlined six times over, describing individuals and the team as a whole, in my notes for the other three periods.  This wasn't a matter of slow rotations, but no rotations.  They weren't making bad decisions on screens as much as making no decisions on screens.  Defense will cost Portland wins under the best of circumstances.  Under anything less than the best the Blazers are toast.  They were well-browned and buttered tonight.

In short, the team that runs at 100% is now running at 78% and playing defense poorly enough that even 100% wouldn't be enough anymore against good opponents.  Their great hopes are home cooking and inferior opposition.  Every team needs those, but you can't ride them all season long.

The Blazers are also in a negative-feedback loop where their lack of results causes them to trust less, press more, execute poorly, and give up prematurely.  Fatigue no doubt plays a factor in this as well, making cowards of us all.  But the Blazers will be fatigued and injured for the rest of the season.  If they can't rediscover their trust, effort, and precision the remaining 5 weeks of the 2013-14 campaign will seem interminable.

Portland does have a chance to reverse course, playing a struggling New Orleans club on Friday.  Whether they have Aldridge back or not, whether the Pelicans offer a stiff challenge or not much of one at all, the Blazers need to look in the mirror and ask themselves what kind of basketball they want to play...how they want to define themselves.  Once upon a time they knew the answer to that question, devoted themselves to it even when the answer was imperfect.  Now they're stumbling in the dark, falling apart without a whimper in a way that schedule alone can't explain.  No amount of leniency from opponents will remedy that situation.  The Blazers better find a way to pull it together, to go on the attack again instead of taking what comes.  Golden State isn't the only team knocking on the door.  And no matter where they finish in the Western Conference bracket, Portland's first-round opponent will not be weak.  Nor will they have any interest in letting the Blazers off the hook.

Boxscore

Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread Review

Pounding The Rock

Your Jersey Contest scores and the form for Friday are HERE.  Tonight's Answers:  Tiago Splitter combined for 22 points and rebounds, Damian Lillard played 40 minutes, the Blazers grabbed 48 rebounds, and Dorell Wright scored the most over his season average.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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