The Portland Trail Blazers are at a critical juncture in their 2020 NBA Playoffs series with the Los Angeles Lakers. Down 1-2 headed into Game 4, Portland needs to rally and capture a victory tonight to avoid treading the brink of elimination. If they win, the series renews. If they lose, it’s time for wishes and platitudes.
If the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag is any indication, Trail Blazers fanbase are looking backwards to Game 3 as much as ahead to Game 4. The amount of mail I’ve received on Portland’s 116-108 loss since Saturday has been staggering. It has fallen into two general categories:
- Can you believe those refs???
- Portland looked tired! You can’t really blame them.
Here are a couple samples, edited for space, as always. (People can really go on a long time about referees!)
43 free throws to 19! You can’t tell me the league doesn’t want precious Lebron in the playoffs. Why do they keep doing this to us? He shot as many free throws as our whole team!
Nurk looked exhausted out there. The team didn’t look that much better. Do you think this is schedule-related? The Blazers are better than that. Do you think the NBA should have given them more rest?
I want to thank everybody who wrote in. You make my day brighter and I’m honored that you would. I also want to respect the feelings that come with a loss. I feel that letdown too.
That said, has everybody gone crazy? What the heck?
In writing, editors tell authors to “get over their crutch phrases”. These are constructs a writer leans on when they have nothing fresh to add. (“That said,” just above, is one of mine.) Excuses about referees, schedule, travel, etc. are the crutch phrases of the Blazers franchise. They may not be invalid or entirely wrong, but bringing them up is a sure sign you’re not getting anywhere.
If fouls and fatigue are the central determining factors of the playoffs, why did the Blazers even show up? Their roster was set at the beginning of the season. Their need to work hard through the restart and play-in games was determined by their position in the conference standings. Their style of play relative to the Lakers was always going to give L.A. an advantage in drawing fouls. We knew all these things going into the series. If nothing else mattered, the Blazers should have played their bottom five players to prevent injury to their stars, lost four straight, and called it a year.
And yet, somehow, on August 18th, 2020—just four days before Game 3’s supposedly predestined loss—the Blazers actually WON the first game of this series from these same Lakers...just like they’d won 7 of 9 games prior in the bubble.
Did the fatigue monster somehow descend over the weekend, turning energized players terminally lethargic in less than a week? Did conspiracy-minded NBA refs slam their palms down on tables and hatch a plan, sending out a new directive that Portland doesn’t get to win odd-numbered games anymore?
If Portland’s playoff story is really going to be determined by fouls or tiredness, they should stop going. Head for the lottery until you’ve accumulated enough talent that neither one is an issue. Fill a team full of #1 overall picks, then try again.
If they’re not going to do that—if they’re going to participate—then the Blazers have to play ball. They aren’t owed anything: not wins, not chances, not even perceived fairness. Nobody is going to give them victories because they’re nice or witty or have cool commercials. Every team they face is going to do everything possible to bulldoze, rob, or wiggle their way to a win, turning every possible advantage into victory. If Portland can’t handle that, and isn’t willing to do the same, they don’t belong there.
Let’s talk about fatigue. Everybody in the NBA had from mid-March to mid-July off. In a normal year, between preseason games and a full schedule, Game 3 would have been closing in on their 100th contest of the season. THAT’S fatigue. And it only gets harder as you advance. If you cannot show up in critical moments of Game 3 of the first round of a shortened season because you’re tired, when will you ever be energized enough to show up?
Portland is playing with a depleted roster. Zach Collins, Trevor Ariza, and Rodney Hood are out. Jusuf Nurkic has been recovering from injury all season. There is some truth to the “fatigue disadvantage” mantra. But all these things were also true in Game 1, which the Blazers won.
Jusuf Nurkic played 35 minutes in Game 3. That’s not out of line for a starter. But let’s say he’s not able to go that extra 5-10 minutes because he’s still acclimating. Where’s Hassan Whiteside? Center depth was supposed to be a Portland strength.
Except it’s not really about that...at least not at the core. The Blazers didn’t falter in Game 3 because they didn’t have enough bodies. They faltered because the bodies they had weren’t doing enough. Take Nurkic out of the picture; assume he did everything he could. Other bigs weren’t getting up the floor. Portland’s reserve corps was literally standing and watching as Lakers dominated the offensive glass without offering a shred of resistance. Not only did they fail to box out, they failed to get anywhere near the glass. L.A. took charge of that game via rebounding and the Blazers did nothing to challenge them.
Nurkic looked tired in the second half, particularly when he was closing on Anthony Davis shooting at the perimeter. Part of that may have been recovery-related. At that point he was also the only Blazers player on the floor covering the inside with any consistency. Then he had to go out and stop Davis shooting jumpers that he had little or no prayer of blocking.
Where were his teammates on those possessions? Where was the help behind him on the interior? If the Blazers are leaning on Nurkic to do all the work, he’s going to wear down. That’s not some universal, cosmic injustice. That’s basketball.
It wasn’t just the bigs either. Los Angeles has been doing a good job of guarding Portland’s guards in this series, but sometimes the Blazers have made it easier. Go back and look at Damian Lillard’s superlative shooting performances. He finds seams quickly, but his actual shot looks relaxed. When he’s on, his form is impeccable, his body naturally aligned, and his release looks sure and unhurried. Everything about him screams poise. Rewind his Game 3 shots. On that night many of his shots looked rushed. His feet were going all different directions. His target seemed as precarious as a pinpoint instead of assured like the ocean.
In no way am I trying to pass judgment. Lillard is the best volume shooter in the league right now, one of the greatest players of his generation, surely one of the very best in the history of the franchise. Neither the Blazers nor their fans could ask for more.
For every player, some nights are better than others. Neither referees nor big-man fatigue altered Lillard’s shot that night. If anything, the refs gave Dame help. He attempted 14 foul shots—equal to Davis and just short of James’ 17—while putting up only 3 shots in the restricted area and 4 in the paint total. Davis and LeBron each doubled that.
We could also talk about isolation plays from CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony, both of whom scored very well but took a comparatively long time to do it. We could talk about Hassan Whiteside being up and down. Which Blazers were diving to the floor in those critical, second-half possessions? Which Blazers were getting up in the grills of the opponent without relenting? Where was the “this is the playoffs, do or get vanquished” will to win?
The point is, the Blazers didn’t lose Game 3 for a couple of single, easily-identified reasons, let alone unjust ones. Even their upsides had flaws that the Lakers took advantage of.
The Blazers weathered the first half free throw parade by the Lakers just fine. They didn’t come through the second half as well. If they’re looking anywhere but in the mirror for the reasons, they’re not going to change them or succeed.
Let’s talk about the Lakers for a second. They’re built to do this kind of thing. They’re dominant and deep in the froncourt. Their starting power forward and center are not only two of the biggest, most talented players in the league, they can score from multiple ranges, play defense, and destroy opponents on the glass. Then they bring in Dwight Howard, who bumps and grinds down opposing centers, tiring them out in the process.
The Lakers are also a good, veteran defensive team. They understand they’re not going to stop Portland’s starting guards. They don’t need to. They want to make Lillard and McCollum take extra dribbles to set up their shots, then rush through them. They don’t need to force every shot to miss, they just need to make shooters think and shave a few points off. They don’t need to stop possessions if they make them take longer. They know they’ll never keep Portland from scoring. They just need to keep the Blazers south of 120. If that happens, L.A.’s inside edge will win out on average.
The Lakers just want this series to go like it’s supposed to. The #1 seed had a little more rest than the 8th seed fighting to get to the playoffs. Inside and transition looks go in a little more regularly than three-pointers. The boards go to L.A. a little more than their opponents. If those things all remain true, L.A. will probably win.
It’s up to Portland to make the contest something more than average. They need games to break their way. That happens when you control individual plays, particularly in balance-tipping moments. The Lakers won all of the balance-tipping moments in Game 3, which is why they took it. Portland needs to make sure that doesn’t happen again in Game 4.
I don’t know if the Blazers going to be able to do that, but they certainly won’t if the main themes of the evening can be encapsulated as, “We’re tired and those refs suck.” The playoffs aren’t about that for anybody. Winning teams take those things as a given, then ask how they can overcome them, and the opponent. Anybody who dwells on them has already lost.
The Blazers haven’t lost yet. They’re going to need a strong response tonight to keep the series going on favorable terms. That response can’t depend on referees, scheduling, or anything but their own ability and determination. Otherwise it wouldn’t be repeatable anyway.
Every team in the playoffs is good. The teams that succeed there are also unstoppable. You can’t control what’s going to happen around you in any game. The only way to win is to show the world what you’re going to do about it.
Game 4 tips at 6:00, Pacific tonight. Join us and see if they do it.
—Dave (email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @blazersedge)