The Portland Trail Blazers’ 119-102 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in Game 3 of their first-round NBA Playoffs series was unforgettably painful. The futility went beyond the 17-point final margin...that score was actually far closer than most of the game had been. An 0-3 deficit in the series adds to the shock, but cannot fully summarize it. The powerlessness of the Blazers—an deep-seeded inability to stop New Orleans or generate anything for themselves—made this game memorable. It wasn’t just a matter of bad basketball. Between flat-footed defense, lack of jumping, getting beaten down the floor, allowing wide-open lanes, and committing unforced turnovers, this was barely basketball at all. The Pelicans hit the Blazers hard, but they found themselves swinging against a team that showed all the signs of having given up...not just on the game or the series, but on each other. The Blazers needed to come out and make a statement in Game 3. They did, but it wasn’t the one intended. This loss put the final period on a mounting string of evidence calling into question the long-term viability of this roster.
The need for transition has little to do with this series, or the possibility of getting swept from it. That result is nothing new for the Blazers. Trailing 0-2, they won the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers went down with injuries during the series. Other than that, they have not made it past the first round since Damian Lillard hit “The Shot” against the Houston Rockets in 2014...five playoffs ago. Houston remains the only reasonably healthy team the Blazers have beaten in the playoffs since Lillard was drafted.
Outside of those two exceptions, the Blazers have never won more than a single game in any playoff series in the Lillard Era. Including the New Orleans results, they’re 3-19 against teams that eliminate them. Even counting Houston and L.A., they hold an 11-23 in the postseason over the last five years.
When they face teams that are good, the Blazers aren’t very good. The New Orleans results aren’t revolutionary. They continue a multi-year trend.
Up to this point, the litany of losses hasn’t brought on massive calls for change. The Blazers were young, on their way up, usually considered lucky to be where they were given the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015. This year is different.
Portland is no longer young. Technically they still hold the designation of “youngest team in the playoffs” but that’s because they lack veterans in the deep bench, opting for developmental players instead. 6 of their top 8 rotation players are between the ages of 26-28. Most of their contracts will expire in two years, all of them within three. Youth or no youth, the clock is ticking.
The Blazers are no longer on their way up. They won more games this season than last and got a better seed, but they did not separate themselves from the pack of middling Western Conference teams and their playoffs results appear to be no better, currently heading for a second straight sweep.
If the Blazers had any luck, it seems to have run out. They’re getting exposed. Recent 0-4 and 1-4 playoff series results could be explained by the caliber of opponent. The Memphis Grizzlies aside, Portland drew heavyweights. Coming into this series, they stood on equal ground with the Pelicans record-wise and New Orleans was missing one of their two superstars. Losing the series under those circumstances would have been disappointing enough; Portland was not supposed to get swept, or even come close.
The storm could be weathered with more talk of patience—wounds covered up with balms like “3rd Seed” and “Division Title” and “Basically 50 Wins”—were it not for the Game 3 debacle. The Blazers were D.O.A., giving off only slight tremors caused by Al-Farouq Aminu, whose three-point shots were like the last pulses of electricity through a brain that had long since ceased to be aware of them. They didn’t just give up on winning, they gave up on everything, including each other.
Game 3 definitively answered the question, “Is there any hope that this roster, as constructed, will become contenders?” The players themselves don’t believe that, at this point. They’ll play better, of course. You’d expect such in Game 4. But when hit hard and pushed to the brink by a team whose main assets are a single big mismatch and a defensive hounding guard, the only response the Blazers could muster was, “I guess we’re going.”
Few teams win championships, or even come close, without being pushed to that brink. Progression through the playoffs comes when you know that no matter how hard the opponent pushes, you’re not going over; they are. Not only are the Blazers not capable of saying that and following through, the memory of their Game 3 response (and residual doubt) will haunt this roster as long as it stays together. It won’t show up game-to-game. We might even see more 13-game streaks. But those are only going to lead to more opportunities to tussle at the cliff’s edge. Both we, and they, know how that’s going to end. When pushed to the brink, they are not good enough and do not have enough resolve to resist. They cannot trust each other. They’re not able to cover for each other. They have, and will, fall apart. Eventually, the pressure of the playoffs will blow those cracks wide open. It won’t be a matter of if, but when. Which opponent will turn them into that team, and which round will it happen in this year?
Games 1 and 2 of the New Orleans series were the Ghosts of Playoffs Past, come to warn the Blazers what would happen if they didn’t reform and change course. Game 3 was the epitaph inscribed in stone when they failed to do so.
We’ve reached the stage in the development of this roster where hope and bravado will start to sound like excuses, even to the people who will sell them. We’ve reached the stage where the truth is so evident it cannot be avoided. We all saw it last night.
Real change will not be easy. As we’ve written a couple of times this week, part of the weakness lies at the cultural level...a propensity to spin narratives so glib and shiny that the franchise itself gets trapped in them. Spend too long calling mediocrity greatness and you lose the ability to tell the difference, getting angry at any who would point it out.
A $110.5 million cap obligation in July against a $101 million salary cap—not even adding in re-signed free agents yet—complicates matters greatly. So does the fact that beyond Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Blazers have few trade assets that combine attractiveness and affordability.
This post-season had to work, because once the Blazers returned back home, they were facing one heck of a mess. A trip to the second round might have covered rent for the summer. The Conference Finals would have been like getting a steady job. Winning one game before exiting the first round will be the equivalent of heading to Vegas to bet the remains of your savings on a spin of the Roulette wheel, then coming back broke to your maxed-out credit cards and delinquent mortgage. Getting swept means you got a flat tire on the way home too. Welcome to the Trail Blazers’ world.
This is no accident. This was not a one-time event, a bad opponent draw. This outcome was neither inconceivable nor unforeseeable...it was just really unpalatable. When your own players are telling you on the court, under a bright spotlight, in front of a national audience that they don’t believe in the course and they don’t believe they can win, you have to swallow it.
The Blazers cannot wait. Lillard and McCollum have three years left on their deals. Lillard will be 30 when he starts making decisions about his future with the Blazers, his prime years passing quickly. Portland cannot let either guard get to a decision point beyond franchise control without figuring out what to do with them.
The Blazers cannot pretend. The results are so obvious that every commentator on every broadcast is using words like “soft” and “didn’t want it” and “not cohesive”.
The Blazers cannot continue to throw good money after bad, divesting themselves of cap space and assets to keep a shell-game narrative spinning over the drone of mediocrity.
The Blazers must change course now. We didn’t just see a 20-30 point blowout on Thursday night, we saw the end of an era. We witnessed a referendum on a plan that never really worked right in the first place, but looked decent while sputtering. Black smoke just spurted out of the engine and exhaust pipe. Time to fix the car or get a new one.
The Blazers need a serious intervention. It’s time for somebody to say, “No!” It’s time for culture, process, and then results to change. Otherwise no matter how we fool ourselves in the meantime, the story is going to end up the same. At that point nobody—not opponents, not commentators, not even the players who suit up for the franchise—will ultimately respect it.