Yesterday afternoon the Blazers shook off their holiday mellow in a contest against the Nets.
Everything went tolerably for Portland through three quarters, nowithstanding steady production from Kevin Durant and a constant uphill battle to get the most from their own offense through all the big bodies and outstretched arms that the Nets have to throw at their opponents.
In the fourth quarter the wheels came off. Seth Curry made shots, Anfernee Simons didn't, and just like that the game was the next thing to over. The Blazers carried off the loss 97-111.
- BEdge recap
- BEdge analysis
- Associated Press recap
- Previous analysis: Game 19 at NYK, W 132-129 (OT)
- Next analysis: Game 20 vs. LAC, L 118-112
The mental edge
Consider that NBA players are the world's best. Those of us who are, like those men, familiar with performing at an elite level in our own jobs know the degree of focus required. It's a lot. Even if the shots are being taken from behind a desk, the work can be exhausting at that level.
…But NBA players—and most professional athletes—have it worse than the rest of us. Outside perhaps organized warfare, trauma medicine, and fine dining, there are few endeavors less forgiving of mistakes and less forbearing of operators who show up for work feeling less than a hundred percent.
On the other hand, for us fans it's hard to take some of the mistakes and letdowns. These guys are getting paid millions of dollars every year to do their stuff, the thinking goes, so shouldn't they have it together?
They do, but like anybody else who gets to that level these players are passionate about what they do.
Sometimes that passion is paid for with the energy that might otherwise go to maintaining discipline.
The Blazers are stuck in that trap. They got so close by wanting it badly enough, only to be shoved into the jaws of defeat by a team better able to rely on individual discipline like that shown by Durant and Curry.
A guy who misses his spot by two tenths of a second… still misses his spot as if it had been twenty, and still loses the rebound or flubs the pass or meets the screen in the worst possible way.
So it goes with maintaining focus. Failures are compounded by the mindset of guys like Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, and Keon Johnson: they're amazing players with boundless energy. They personify the best of what Blazer Basketball can be. Under the right circumstances, they're unstoppable.
Under the wrong circumstances, that passion explodes like a supernova in fury at best laid plans gone wrong, leaving an empty, gaseous shell of frustration. That's not quite what happened yesterday; what we watched was more of a deflation.
The uncharacteristic loss of focus remains the critical element in the adverse outcome.
In a word, no. But…
During last season's tank, Simons, Hart, Winslow, Eubanks, and Watford took measure of themselves and came into October with an encouraging idea of what they could do. Opposing teams were busy enough figuring themselves out that they couldn't afford to focus on this player or that, and our guys had the run of the court for a while.
Now teams know their heading, bearing, and range, and they know what tools they can use to bring in wins. So do the Blazers, but none of those tools are extraordinary help against long lineups like the ones that the Nets can put on the floor.
On the upside the Blazers are still pushing the ball up the court on offense, and still building a hornet's nest in the low post at every opportunity on defense. They're playing to their strengths. At this point their mental fight is entirely with themselves. There are bigger teams out there, but few better.
- The subtitle of this story was deliberately chosen. Go ahead, explain how the Blazers played all that differently against the Nets than they did against the Knicks. We can wait.
- One of the guys unaffected by the general funk is Jerami Grant. He turned in another outstanding performance, albeit one not so often punctuated by free throws, since the Nets don't feel the need to push to the limits of good sense on defense.
- Drew Eubanks is back, but back at 100% will require a few games taking it easy—or whatever passes for that in Eubanks' case.
- Josh Hart was so busy trying to stay in front of Kevin Durant on defense that he didn't have bandwidth for much else. We should be disappointed that the Blazers' frequent drops into the man-to-man did not create more doubleteams on troublesome opponents.
- …Of course, with Curry doing Curry things, any plan for dealing with Durant was going to hit some snags.
- Last but not least, one player was worse than Hart in the plus-minus column, and that was Anfernee Simons. The only thing keeping that guy from being CJ 2.0 is his willingness to shoot quickly, but most of the other weaknesses are there. This fan is losing patience and starting to hope for a trade at the deadline, if one is even possible. Either that, or he needs to start putting the same effective effort into mastering defense that Dame's displayed this season. Small does not by any means equal hopeless.
I am grateful for a lot of things, and at this moment none less than the end of my need to write about the Brooklyn Nets this season. I can put away the profound contempt I feel for one specific Nets player, and not think about it for another year, I hope.
The Blazers are making a pit stop in Portland to host the Clippers tomorrow night. That broadcast starts no sooner than 7 p.m. PST on TNT, which guarantees that most of you will not read the next story in this series until Wednesday morning.
The Clips have been beating up on the usual suspects, but their underwhelming road performance is a perfect match to Portland's underwhelming returns at home. Zubac is likely to pick the Blazers apart in the low post, so the Blazers' best hope is to force the team onto Zubac's back for the game.
No sooner than the game against the Clippers ends, the Blazers will be back on the road for a few more days: immediately to Los Angeles to play the Lakers, then to Salt Lake City after a couple of days' rest. Once home from Utah, the Blazers will play four of their five December home games.