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Why the Trail Blazers Win and Lose Gloriously

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How can the same team experience inspiring victories and surprising defeats, seemingly without reason? Maybe there is one.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers earned a signature win against the Utah Jazz on Monday night, then lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a similarly important game on Tuesday. NBA seasons are full of ups and downs, but the swings appear to be getting to this Blazer’s Edge Reader, judging by this probing Mailbag question.

HOW, DAVE? HOW?

Seriously how?

How does this team look so dam good against Utah and then get dunked on by PG and Russ for a whole game the next night. And both teams were on back to back games so it ain’t just tired.

I do not understand how good nights and bad nights come from the same team in a row and how you think that we got a statement win and then there’s as big of a statement loss.

Answer me this riddle please.

Tony

This isn’t rocket surgery.

The Good

The Blazers are good. They have an MVP-level superstar in Damian Lillard, one of the top players in today’s game. If your jaw doesn’t have repetitive stress injuries from dropping on the floor, you haven’t been watching him much.

CJ McCollum’s “down” year consists of 20.5 ppg on 46% shooting. (I know...34.3% three-point shooting. Meyers Leonard sucked it from him in a clandestine vampiric ritual, OK?)

Jusuf Nurkic is playing out of his mind, giving Portland everything that could be desired.

Al-Farouq Aminu defends. Seth Curry is hitting half of his threes. Leonard and Jake Layman are shooting over 50% from the field. Evan Turner is looking like a bona fide jack-of-all-trades, clearly and consistently contributing.

They’re good, I tell ya! Don’t just take my word for it. Ask our resident expert podcaster and best-moments connoisseur TeamMom!

The Blazers are really good at making you want more. Either because they did a thing and they did it great or they almost did a thing and you know that given one more chance they could do it spectacularly. Take alley-oops. The Blazers don’t get a ton, but every time they do, I’m pretty sure an angel gets its wings. The misses are often as fierce as the makes, with the ball careening halfway back down the court after jamming off the rim. Who doesn’t want to come back and see that go in next time?

And how about those between-the-defender bounce passes they make several times a game? Those take experience and timing and chutzpah. Lillard has had enough reps to know how long it will take Nurkic to lumber through the paint. Evan Turner can pinpoint the exact spot that Moe Harkless is cutting into. We’ve even see Jusuf Nurkic (?) bounce a pass between a defender’s legs. These flashy bounce passes get the team fired up and dazzle the crowd. Except when they don’t, because the cutter couldn’t catch it or the roller fumbled it out or bounds or . . . But if they didn’t try these things, they’d just be. . . . one of those teams who don’t try things.

On any given night, the Blazers can clean your clock, polish it all shiny, and then return it to you with Damian Lillard’s face smirking right back at you through the glass. That happened against Utah the other night. It was brilliant.

The Bad

It didn’t happen against Oklahoma City in the same way, nor did it happen against the Jazz in December. Most notably, it did not happen in the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the New Orleans Pelicans. When Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday showed up, the Blazers cleaned clocks more like that Rankin-Bass Christmas mouse.

This happens because the Blazers have systemic, repeatable weaknesses that undermine their long-term prospects even if they don’t scuttle every game. They’ve been able to address a couple with personnel changes, but they’re still vulnerable.

A few of those weaknesses showed up in last night’s loss to the Thunder. Nurkic was great early and the bench outplayed Oklahoma City’s offensively in the second quarter. That should have translated into a halftime lead. Instead the Blazers were down 7 at intermission because they couldn’t deal with screens and they didn’t close out on Oklahoma City shooters well...the cost of sealing off the inside against potential drives.

Facing a deficit, Portland went guard-heavy in the second half. McCollum was brilliant in the third quarter; Lillard was otherworldly in the fourth. But Oklahoma City fielded good enough defenders to shut Lillard out of scoring opportunities once the threat got serious. The Blazers couldn’t throw the ball to Aminu or Harkless. They weren’t producing and seldom do in meaningful moments. (And frankly, even their good games rarely turn the tide. Golden State is famous for letting Aminu shoot all he wants, make or miss.) Portland couldn’t sub in Jake Layman or Seth Curry for defensive reasons. Evan Turner might have served, but he can’t spread the floor with shooting, so the defense would have gotten tighter on the star guards.

During the backcourt surge, the Blazers barely got the ball to Nurkic in scoring position. He wasn’t likely to batter down the gate himself during crunch time against Steven Adams anyway. By the way, Nurkic did well defending Adams in the post during their last meeting. This time Oklahoma City faced up Adams more, taking him ever so slightly farther out on the court to make Nurkic move more. Neither Nurkic nor the team adjusted well.

Not that it would have mattered, because Paul George was knocking them silly anyway, even with the best possible defenders on him. Portland’s dam didn’t just break, it crumbled, as it often does when a decent opposing player gets on a hot streak.

Long story short, Plan A wasn’t enough to win, but executing it took away the better parts of Plan B, which only succeeded for a limited time anyway. Plan C involved a lot of prayer, followed by a loss.

The post mortem on the game isn’t the point. Far more indicative: none of this is any kind of surprise to observers. When the Blazers go down, this is how it happens.

Sometimes the Blazers win despite their weaknesses. They win more than they lose, in fact! But at some point they find the opponent who taps their well-known vulnerabilities. For all the shiny accomplishments, they still don’t have an answer for that.

Imagine having a multi-million dollar home in the West Hills, situated right on top of a crumbling cliff. No matter how good it looks, it’s never secure. That’s the exact sense these Trail Blazers give off.

The cliff analogy also provides their ultimate epitaph. Despite attempts to shore up, the precariously-perched house remains at the mercy of wind and weather. For all their talent and progress, the Blazers’ destiny is not in their control. If they draw the wrong matchup—teams with the ability to impede Lillard, overwhelm Nurkic into foul trouble, force the ball to the forwards, or stretch the defense with threes, for instance—they’re done. Opponents can’t (and don’t) always push those buttons, but the buttons remain.

The Upshot

The Western Conference standings are bunched up right now. Portland sits in the fourth seed, 5 games behind the Golden State Warriors. Want a bold prediction? If something happens to the Warriors (injuries?) and they can’t get separation, the Blazers are good enough to make up that gap, leapfrog the Thunder and Nuggets, and take the first seed into the playoffs. That could really happen.

Let’s say it did. Would anyone be confident that the Blazers would for sure win that first-round matchup against the Clippers, Jazz, Spurs, Lakers, or Rockets? Even if they did, all bets would be off in the second round.

That right there is the Trail Blazers in a nutshell. That’s why they can’t let seeding position, trophy victories, or plain old complacency determine their moves at the trade deadline or in the summer. They have to back-fill some of those predictable fault lines before the tectonic pressure of the post-season ruptures them again. Otherwise we’ll continue to see glorious victories followed by maddening defeats. That’s still pretty good, but it’s not what the franchise should be aiming at.

Thanks for the Mailbag question! Send yours along to blazersub@gmail.com. While you’re at it, please help us send kids in need to see the Blazers play the Nets on March 25th! Here’s how.

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