This is not going to be the typical game preview.
The Portland Trail Blazers play the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday in a 6:00 p.m. Pacific game televised locally on KGW and nationally on NBA TV. If you want to know more about the Mavericks you can peruse MavsMoneyball, our sister site in Dallas. The Mavericks are still fighting for a playoff spot, though that hope grows dimmer by the day. Even if they weren't, though, the Blazers have lost 7 straight games by double digit margins. Unless we see a dramatic turn-around, particularly on the defensive end, there's no reason to change the prognosis: an entertaining game but one that's difficult to win.
At this juncture, it's more important to look at Portland's internal process than the opponent's anyway. If you haven't seen Ben Golliver's excellent Media Row Report from the 18-point loss to Houston, check it out. Ben does a great job conveying how, absent the overriding goal of making the playoffs, the Blazers float adrift in a sea of diverging aims and expectations.
You may recall that earlier in the season much was made of a comment I left under a thread, speculating how, as is true of all professional teams, Portland's locker room was more or less a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces have the potential to fit together but unless you get them just right, it's not going to work.
To their immense credit, the Blazers have stayed unified and have played at an acceptable level throughout the season. This was no mean feat. The coaching staff and all the players deserve a round of applause for making it so far. But Ben's reports also points out some of the difficulties involved in keeping cohesion. In one evening we witnessed:
--The team's best player waxing philosophical and giving his version of a shoulder shrug after one of the pinnacle games of his season was wasted by poor play from his teammates. He's got the talent to champion his squad but he's not the kind of vocal leader teammates will rally around.
--A fellow starter who hates to lose in any situation bemoaning his teammates' lack of effort in a fiery speech. He's the inversion of the star, a vocal leader who isn't consistent enough to be the #1 guy on the floor.
--A rookie who's had the best run of his season while playing starter's minutes due to the superstar's injury. Reassignment to the bench has left him floundering again, at least in the short term.
--The veteran who started in favor of the rookie who's a short-timer on the team, likely looking at his last few games before departing via free agency. He just played his average, flawed, game but his contributions this season have shown that his average might be as good as the rookie's best.
That's only four stories out of a dozen or more. What about Eric Maynor, who laid an egg in that game but is himself fighting for a new deal? How about free-agent-to-be Luke Babbitt and his on-again, off-again court time? Sasha Pavlovic just saw his first action in forever even though he's probably as capable as any of Portland's reserve forwards.
What exactly are the Blazers doing here? How do you piece together these disparate stories into a coherent entity? If you know, you're a better analyst than I.
Should the Blazers be fighting like demons to win every game even though the playoffs are out of reach or is this the time a veteran says, "Don't stress about it...just go out there and play your best and let's get home safely"?
Does merit still govern decisions about playing time or should less tested players be getting a chance to prove their worth?
Are these the games in which you want Damian Lillard to explore his point guard side or are they the last steps in a glitzy, point-filled coronation march to the Rookie of the Year title? Do you want him running the offense or dominating the offense? Are you looking for his fit or his ceiling?
Every time you come up with a definitive answer to one of these questions I can make a similarly definitive counter-argument. Nobody's right. It's a matter of perspective. Wesley Matthews is justified in his, "What the heck are we doing? We should be playing harder than this!" LaMarcus Aldridge is just as correct with his "Chill, man. It's the end of the season. And by the way, didn't you guys just blow my 30-point effort? What else do you want me to do?"
In the abstract it's a great psychological-sociological lesson. Take away the goal which is bigger than the self--in this case the playoffs--and any group will fall prey to disparate agendas. You can't even find a "right" anymore. Every time Damian Lillard busts 22 points to riotous applause somebody else is likely to roll their eyes.
It's no accident that defense has been erased from the Blazers' lexicon over the last couple weeks. During their 7-game losing streak they've held only one opponent under 100. (The Grizzlies slowed the pace to create a 94-76 win.) Seeing the Rockets convert layup after layup without a single Blazer intervening was both sickening and fascinating. The point could not have been demonstrated more clearly. Team defense requires sacrifice, communication, trust. The Blazers are in short supply right now.
For most of this season the Blazers have played to the strongest part of themselves, seldom stringing bad games back-to-back, staying close, winning some games they had no business being in. They made each other better. Now we're seeing the opposite. Chronic weaknesses have turned fatal. Everybody's doing their own thing well but nobody's helping their neighbor.
One need only drift down I-5 a ways to see what that kind of play does to a team far more talented individually than the Blazers are. Pundits once looked at the Lakers and cried, "Championship!" Now they're a league-wide joke. The Blazers started the season as a joke but worked their way to semi-respectable status. Unless they remember how they succeeded, though, the last dozen games of their season will turn into an extended punch line.
The slumping close to an otherwise-acceptable 2012-13 season should prove a point to Portland fans. Throughout Portland's rebuild process--which in many ways stretches back to 2006--folks have called for the team to adopt alternate agendas. "Just play the young guys and let them develop" and "Since we're not winning a title anyway, just tank and get a better draft pick" have been common refrains. We might see both of those things happen in the next two weeks. But angst in the locker room and aimless play on the court are the inevitable results of substituting anything else for winning as the team goal. Winning is the only aim in sports that unifies. Anything else divides, even if your team is populated with great guys and that alternative goal makes logical or intuitive sense.
In other words, be careful what you wish for.
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