Despite Slumping Into Half-Season Mark, Trail Blazers Aren't as Worried as You Are
A close loss to Cleveland was emblematic of recent struggles, but the Blazers think they're close to turning a corner.
PORTLAND, Ore. — As unworried as it's possible to be after a fifth consecutive loss that wasted a 50-point effort from Damian Lillard, that's what the Trail Blazers are right now, across the board.
The end result on Thursday night against the Cavaliers wasn't what Lillard or anybody else wanted. The late-game execution issues were still there, but this time, they didn't thwart a double-digit comeback after multiple multi-minute scoring droughts to start a quarter. Instead, they merely ruined a performance that looked much more like the Blazers of the early season for the first 45 minutes.
Is that progress? A loss is a loss, and there have been a lot of those lately. So in that sense, it wasn't. Even as an impartial media observer, I found myself rolling my eyes at some of the decision-making late in the game that's become all too familiar lately. If you're a fan with an emotional investment in this team, your reaction was probably worse than that, and it's hard to blame anyone for freaking out after every successive one of these.
But that's not where Lillard's head is at. It's not where Chauncey Billups' or Joe Cronin's heads are at, either.
"It's hard for anybody outside of our locker room to feel OK," Lillard said after the game. "But for us, we're the ones out there. So that’s what it has to be."
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After this loss, which admittedly hurt more than the other because they played well enough to win it for all but the final few minutes, Billups told the team that they didn't get into this slump with just one loss and it will take more than one win to get them out of it. Lillard echoed the sentiment.
"I think we're really close," Billups said.
The loss to Cleveland was the Blazers' 41st game of the season, the exact midway point. They're 19-22, three games below .500 with five losses in a row. The last undeniably "good" team they've beaten at full strength (Utah and Minnesota are borderline at best, and Indiana didn't have Tyrese Haliburton when they beat them in early December) was the Knicks over Thanksgiving weekend, and before that New Orleans on the first extended road trip. That trip, with the multiple buzzer-beaters and group celebrations in postgame interviews, feels like a lifetime ago.
I asked Lillard how he feels at the halfway point, zooming out from the current tailspin.
"We expected to be better off than we are right now," he said. "From my perspective, I'm looking at it and saying, we're not playing our best basketball and we're letting games slip away. But the positive side of it is, a lot of teams are letting games slip away. Win one, lose one, lose two. So we're still in the mix. It sucks that we're letting opportunities slip away, where we could be 24-17 if we take advantage of some of those opportunities, and then we're looking at those teams and saying we're separating ourselves. I'm looking at it from both sides. I think at the halfway point, we've had positive experiences, and right now we're in that adversity.
"That hard time of the season, that hard time being part of a team, where you honestly see who you really are and what you're made of. Who's gonna dig? Who's gonna keep that same energy? That's the point of the season that we're in. The halfway mark means there's a lot of the season left. An opportunity for us to grow, and we've got a lot of games that are going to be on our home floor. We've played the tough part of the schedule. We've been on the road it seems like the whole season. Looking at it, I think we could be in a much better position, but we've got some opportunities in front of us. I'm optimistic about how well it can go moving forward."
In a similar spirit, Billups was asked what the Blazers' ultimate goal is for the season. From the beginning, the organization has slow-played it, pushing buzzwords like "connectivity" and wanting to evaluate what they have. His answer on Thursday was a little more definitive than that.
"We're trying to get to the playoffs and be dangerous."
The "get to the playoffs" part of that is, even now, more than doable. They're 11th in the west, just half a game up from 13th but just four games back from fourth. But they're a long, long way from "dangerous" right now, except maybe to the mental health of fans living and dying with each of these games.
There's still time to get there, and Lillard believes they will.
"Everybody's mind has to be right," Lillard said. "Keep pushing forward. It's going to happen. We've got to be better about this, we've got to be better about that. Before you know it, we win one of these close games and that belief grows. You believe a little bit more and that's how you build it. You get to that point with the experience of struggling, because you know what this hard part feels like. That's what makes a really solid team. That's what I see happening for us."
What We Saw
For paid subscribers, notes, thoughts and observations from the game, plus the Jersey of the Night: