The Portland Trail Blazers are off to a shaky to the 2021-2022 season, falling to 5-7 after last night’s 119-109 loss to the Phoenix Suns. The Athletic’s Jason Quick, detailed a heated in-game exchange last night between Portland head coach Chauncey Billups and forward Nassir Little that was indicative of the team’s young season.
During a timeout at the 2:13 mark in the third quarter, Billups yanked Little aside for an intense conversation on the court because Little didn’t follow Billups’ defensive scheme on the previous play. Little stayed tight to Phoenix big man Frank Kaminsky, whereas Billups wanted him to help Cody Zeller defend Phoenix guard Devin Booker who had the ball. Quick said the mishap and the subsequent dialogue was a microcosm of the Blazers’ growing pains through the first 11 games.
It wasn’t the game-defining play by any stretch, but it was a snapshot of where this struggling Blazers team is, and where it is trying to go in this new era under Billups. Game by game, and sometimes timeout to timeout, Billups is drilling into his players how he wants them to play.
Sometimes, they get it. But more often than anyone has liked during this trying start to the season, there have been errors, or “backslides,” as Billups calls them.
It’s why when I asked Billups how he would describe where the Blazers are now, after Wednesday’s 119-109 loss to the Suns dropped them to 5-7, he paused to find the right words. He settled on “under construction.”
It has been a season with similar exchanges between coaches and players, as well as player to player. Portland guard Damian Lillard called the dialogue “necessary.” Billups recognizes there will be growing pains.
“That’s part of the process. Part of the process is there will be backslides,” Billups said. “That’s me (asking) ‘What are we doing? We’ve talked about that already.’ It makes it tough sometimes, showing the same defensive breakdowns from game, to game, to game. But I’m not letting up the gas, though, because I know what it takes to win in this league, and the good teams do it every night. And I’m not letting off the gas.”
Quick says the team needs to work on its consistency.
“I think we have figured out how hard we have to play, but still … just too many mental errors, man,” Billups said. “Too many mental errors and defensive collapses and breakdowns … if you don’t play from the neck up a little better, it makes it tough.”
While players appear frustrated during miscommunications and moments of constructive criticism, Lillard said the team remains positive.
“We don’t have a negative team,” Lillard said. “We never have since I’ve been here. Even when guys get frustrated, it’s always open for conversation. So, I mean, it’s never been ‘That’s your fault!’ … or pointing the finger. Sometimes, it’s ‘Man, you got to be there! That’s your job!’ But I think that’s healthy. That’s good for the growth of our team.”
This positive attitude was evidenced by Little, who took Billups’ in-game callout in stride and slapped hands with his coach after their conversation.
Quick noted “toeing the line” between integrating the system and maintaining an urgency to win has been difficult. Still, both players and coaches believe progress has been made and remain committed to the process.
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