The Trail Blazers have suffered losses in three out of their last four games after a strong road trip through the Eastern Conference. Despite a few recent setbacks, Portland is still in a position to compete for home court advantage in the Western Conference Playoffs. Even with that in mind, there have been troubling trends creeping to the forefront over the last stretch of games.
The Blazers’ losses to the Thunder and Raptors were spirited contests that produced positive moments, but the loss to the lottery-bound Grizzlies is an eyesore. It is important to limit overreaction after a gut-wrenching loss to a division rival, but here is a look at a few issues that deserve a closer look.
For this exercise, I used a completely non-scientific panic meter. Each trend will be gauged on a scale from one to five—with five being the most worrisome.
Jake Layman put together back-to-back months of solid production in January and February. Layman posted a scoring average of 11.5 over that two-month stretch, which only trailed the Blazers’ top trio over that span. Most importantly, Layman connected on 56.3 percent of his field goals and converted his three-pointers at a rate of 38.2 percent during that run. His contributions bolstered coach Terry Stotts’ bench and provided the Blazers with a surplus of lineup flexibility.
It has been a much different story for Layman in the month of March. In four games, he has recorded just one double-digit scoring night. To make matters worse, Layman’s three-point shooting efficiency has disappeared. He has missed all but one of his last 11 attempts.
Shooters go through slumps and Layman is adjusting to the opponent scouting report for the first time. His start to the month isn’t encouraging, but I am going to bet on Jake snapping out of this funk. Panic Meter: 2
Kanter in the Mix
On paper, Enes Kanter’s arrival filled the blue-collar big man role that was vacated by Ed Davis’ departure. Since his debut against the Nets, Kanter trails only Jusuf Nurkic in rebounds per game. Outside of a pair of rough performances against the Thunder and Hornets, he has posted reliable shooting numbers. His physical presence on offense prevents opponents from resting while Nurkic is on the bench, which has assisted Nurk’s uptick in production.
Kanter’s struggles on defense don’t come as a surprise, but some of his hiccups on offense are concerning. In the loss to the Grizzlies, he committed three costly turnovers. Outside of those obvious mistakes, the Blazers’ offense often stagnates with Kanter on the court. The free-flowing perimeter moves halt as Kanter dribbles into opponents on the block. He is a capable scorer in the post, but the disruption in overall rhythm can have a lasting effect.
Dating back to Feb. 21, Kanter has the lowest combined +/- of any player on the Blazers. He is bound to improve as he gets familiar with his new home, but the clock is ticking. Panic Meter: 4
Despite having a somewhat balanced roster, the Blazers’ success ultimately comes down to Damian Lillard’s output. When the playoffs arrive, Lillard will take on an even bigger role. Maintaining a balanced workload for their star should be a priority for the Blazers as the postseason peaks over the horizon. That has not been the case since the All-Star break.
Lillard has averaged 37.2 minutes over the last eight games. Outside of a blow-out victory over the 76ers, Lillard has crossed the 35-minute threshold in every contest. If you take out his injury absence against the Rockets late last season, Lillard produced an eerily similar set of minutes before the Blazers met the Pelicans in the playoffs.
Saturday’s game against the Suns could prove to be a useful indicator. If the Blazers can take care of business early, Lillard should get some valuable rest. Panic Meter: 3