The Portland Trail Blazers got shellacked in their season-opening game against the Utah Jazz last night, a 120-100 debacle that they were never really in contention for. On the heels of two profound losses to the Denver Nuggets at the close of preseason, the wishy-washy outing has Blazers fans concerned.
Portland’s performance against Utah was not the stuff of NBA Champions, or even a real contender, but hitting the panic button may be premature. We don’t even have to trot out the, “It was one game!” platitude. The reasons Portland lost are significant, but also largely self-correcting...provided the team is any good.
The jury is still out on that question. We won’t have a verdict until they prove it on the court. But presuming the Blazers do have a spark of life, here are three reasons you might expect them to play better soon without having to change the team or their approach too much.
They’re Out of Shape
NBA players are accustomed to playing and practicing at a professional level at least seven months out of the year, eight if they go deep into the playoffs. That’s somewhere between 60-66% of their time spent in competition or formal, team preparation for same.
Even with the Orlando Bubble punctuating the COVID-19 hiatus, most teams have spent between 10-15% of their time in organized practices or games since March. At best, that’s about a quarter of the usual.
The usual 5-on-5 scrimmages against talented players were also taboo in a COVID-guarded offseason. They didn’t even have informal workouts to tide them over.
Every team outside of the Lakers and Heat have faced this reality. Some have dealt with it better than others. I think it’s safe to say that Portland slid towards the lower end of the scale. Instead of zinging around like crisp, holiday peppermints, they now resemble large mountains of fudge.
I’m not going to call out individuals here for a couple reasons. It’s pretty obvious when you see it. Also, we don’t know what’s been happening for these guys. A hundred things could be contributing off the court. It’s not automatically a case of negligence or lack of commitment. It’s a strange and awful year. They deserve a break and some space.
Instead let’s focus on the positive. The quick restart appears to have caught the Blazers unprepared, but you can’t play NBA basketball for long without rounding right back into shape. To the extent this is an issue, it should be gone in a couple weeks.
We’re used to seeing the Blazers trot out the same, basic team each year. Familiarity has been part of their Secret Sauce of Success. When the limits of that success became plain, changing the roster was inevitable. That means re-learning how to play together effectively, something the Blazers haven’t had to do in a serious way since 2015.
More specifically, they’re trying to implement several new emphases on defense. I’m not sure even they know exactly what they want to do, ideally. It’s a work in progress.
This is the mental/schematic version of physical conditioning. It may take longer to figure out, especially against playoff-caliber teams. How the Blazers play in early February will be more indicative of who they are than how they looked in the season opener.
Damian Lillard Will Return
One of the more interesting aspects of last night’s game was the lack of scoring aggression from Damian Lillard. Portland’s all-everything player attempted just 5 shots in the first half, only 12 for the game. CJ McCollum doubled Lillard’s shot attempts before halftime and ended up seven ahead of him at the end of the game, despite shooting only a slightly-higher percentage (36% to 33%).
Defense may have been a part of the story. It’s also possible Lillard was making a statement that he’s willing to share scoring responsibilities on this new, more talented team. If so, that should last, at most, one more loss.
The Blazers need to get along. Multiple players need to be happy on offense in order to put out their best effort on defense. That only goes so far, though. Nobody’s happy if the team doesn’t excel.
Sometimes leading from among is the right answer, but sometimes leading from ahead is too. Lillard’s teammates are going to be better off—emotionally and otherwise—if he scores 40 per night and they win than they will be if he attempts a dozen shots per night and they lose.
Lillard has never had a problem stepping up like that before. If he needs to, he’ll do so again. The sooner the Blazers see it, the better they’ll be.
Bonus: Slow Starts
Here’s a fourth, bonus reason because it’s Christmas!
Traditionally, the Blazers have been a slow-starting team. They get over the habit occasionally, but they always slide back. Crawling into the season at a snail’s pace won’t do much for their playoffs seeding, but it doesn’t preclude their standard rally to give themselves a shot. We don’t even know if this was a game or a trend yet, but either way, it doesn’t stop them from battling to advance in April.
Are you pressing the panic button or are you pretty even-keeled about the last couple games? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.