Two nights ago the Portland Trail Blazers put together a study in contrasts against the Denver Nuggets, going from totally indifferent and down 17 in the second quarter, to energized and up double figures in the third.
The duality of performance was concerning, but there was widespread hope that an impassioned halftime speech from Terry Stotts would be a turning point in the season.
Sure enough, the Blazers’ dual personality did disappear tonight. Unfortunately, it was the “first half vs. Denver” team that showed up. The result?: A 113-88 thrashing at the hands of the Chicago Bulls.
Jimmy Butler led the way with 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists, and the unheralded Jerian Grant outplayed the vaunted McLillard backcourt, finishing with 18 points and 5 steals. Damian Lillard scored 19 points on 22 shots for the Blazers.
It was apparent from the first play of the game that the Blazers had no interest in challenging the Bulls tonight. Chicago jumped out to a 13-2 lead to open the game, and would build to a 35-14 advantage at the end of the quarter. The Bulls dominated every “effort” aspect of the quarter, using a 22-12 rebounding advantage to create extra scoring opportunities. Jimmy Butler scored 13 points easily against a porous defense, while Robin Lopez chipped in 9 points and 7 assists as the Blazer centers failed to track, or even challenge, Lopez’s jumpers. Lillard missed his seven shot attempts of the quarter and did not score.
At this point, fans familiar with the Lillard-era Blazers expect to read about a valiant run that cuts the lead to single digits in the second half and gives Portland a shot at a miracle in the fourth quarter.
NONE of that happened tonight.
That point bears repeating: The Blazers made NO effort to get back into the game after the disastrous first quarter. The lead never dipped to fewer than 15 points and the Bulls cruised to a wire-to-wire 25-point win.
Ordinarily this section of the post-game analysis contains a granular breakdown of why the Blazers won/lost the night’s contest. But, given the **ahem** concerning nature of tonight’s loss, and several emergent fundamental flaws, I’m going to go with bullet points to highlight a few of the problems the team has had:
The Bulls out-rebounded the Blazers 67-49 tonight. That’s not unusual for the Blazers - they are last place in the NBA in rebounds. Some of the struggles are the result of personnel; the Blazers often play a small lineup with few bona fide rebound masters at power foward or center.
At the same time, they regularly make fundamental errors in technique. Mason Plumlee often has to rotate over to play help defense, leaving his man free to grab offensive rebounds. The weak-side Blazers often stand and watch rather than rotate to assist Plumlee. Even more infuriating, many lost rebounds have been the result of a lack of effort:
The Blazers will never be a good rebounding team because of their personnel, but they must rise to at least mediocre if they hope to compete against big, physical teams like Chicago.
Offense (other than Damian Lillard)
Damian Lillard has been spectacular to watch. He scored more points over the first 10 games of a season than any Blazer ever. Unfortunately, the Bulls completely sold out to frustrate Lillard tonight. They hounded the Blazers’ star, refusing to give him open perimeter looks and forcing him to drive against multiple defenders, resulting in a scoreless first quarter.
Without Lillard, the Portland offense completely fell apart. Nobody on the team, save Allen Crabbe, was able to get open looks and the Blazers began to settle for mid-range isolation jumpers.
This has become a recurring problem - the Blazers have been unable to get into their offensive flow and have been shooting against set defenders. Last season, players were able to force the defense to scramble and, as a worst case scenario, shoot a mid-range jumper as the opponent fell back. This season, the lack of offensive continuity has allowed defenders to keep hands in faces, and the Blazers’ efficiency has plummeted. Willy Raedy covered some of the difficulties yesterday.
The Blazers have one of the lowest ranked defenses in the NBA. That’s partially due to the absence of Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu, for example, would have been a major asset in containing Jimmy Butler tonight. But Aminu’s absence does not exonerate the team entirely. Too often they give up easy drives to the lane, fail to get into passing lanes, and don’t complete rotations. Virtually every technical aspect of the defense has looked out of whack at various points of the season.
And, to make matters even worse, a lack of effort has also undermined Portland’s transition defense on a regular basis. For example, watch Lillard lose track of Dwyane Wade on this play and allow an easy fastbreak dunk:
Blaming “poor effort” for losses is often the sign of lazy analysis. It’s easy to say “they’re not trying hard” when you can’t identify the reason a team has struggled. That is not the case this time:
It’s blindingly obvious that the Blazers are are regularly failing to play hard this season.
Tonight against Chicago the lack of effort manifested in remarkably lazy passes that allowed Grant to snag five steals and in a 26-10 points in the paint deficit part way through the second quarter. Against the Warriors and Clippers it manifested in a lack of effort to stem runs. Against the Nuggets in manifested by surrendering 14 consecutive free throws to open the game. For a team that prided itself on unity, hard work, and chemistry, the consistently lackadaisical play has been both concerning and jarring.
So, is it time to worry? It’s hard to get too concerned about a blowout loss in mid-November. The NBA season is interminably long and every team hits rough stretches. But the Blazers seeming indifference hints at bigger underlying issues and seems hard to dismiss.
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Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @DeeringTornado