'The Time is Now': Trail Blazers Face Season-Defining Stretch as Size Issues Burn Them Again
A spirited comeback wasn't enough to overcome a disastrous first half against the Sixers.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Tell me if this sounds familiar: Trail Blazers come out flat, turn the ball over a ton, can't make a shot, find themselves in a 23-point hole at halftime and mount a spirited comeback in which they clean up every one of those issues in the second half but come up just short.
The final margin of Thursday's loss to the 76ers, their seventh loss in the last nine games, was 10. It at once should have been much closer than that with all the open looks they missed and much more lopsided with all the self-inflicted errors. Chauncey Billups called the turnovers "deflating," and Damian Lillard said the Sixers' physical defense made them "uncomfortable."
The loss to the Sixers, and Tuesday's loss in Denver before it, also reinforced something we've known about this team all along: they're too small. With only Jusuf Nurkic as a true center, there isn't much they can do with a Joel Embiid (32 points on 12-of-22 shooting on Thursday) or a Nikola Jokic (36 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists on Tuesday). There isn't much anyone can do with those two, but Nurkic's early foul trouble left poor Drew Eubanks to fight for his life as Embiid got whatever he wanted.
The Blazers' decision-makers from the top down—from Joe Cronin to Billups to Lillard, the three most important voices in the organization—have never been in denial about the size issue as the roster is currently constructed. That's going to be something they have to address at some point, whether in three weeks at the trade deadline or this summer. They know it, too.
"I watch it every night, man," Billups said when I asked him about it postgame. "We are who we are. We fight hard, but we are who we are. We have who we have. As long as my guys fight their behinds off, that's all we can do."
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"We're a small team," Lillard added. "A lot of times, we're undersized out there. We can play as hard as we want. We're out there working. You see Drew go contest a shot, and then we're right there battling, but if the ball is nine feet in the air, the big guy's gonna get to it before one of us can get to it, even if we're battling our ass off. We're a small team, so we've got our work cut out for us to begin with, and then with some of these guys with that type of size, you've got to be even more locked-in early and try not to get into a situation where it's a jump ball."
For as much as the principal voices in the room have telegraphed that the team is a work in progress, that doesn't make it any easier or less head-scratching to watch them make so many avoidable mistakes every night, and so many of the same ones night-to-night.
"You talk about trying to set a tone at home," Billups said. "You come out like that against a good team, it makes it tough. We've talked about them being a really elite defensive team. The big fella mans the paint, everyone else is pressuring you. They understand personnel. They send players where they don't want to go. And so we talk about that. When you have a team that dominant defensively, you can't turn the ball over. We try to take quality shots, and they keep you away from that. You have to be very focused on what you do and intentional in what you do. When you don't, you dig yourself a hole, and against a good team, it's tough to come back from."
Billups said last week that the Blazers' goal is to "make the playoffs and be dangerous." If that is indeed the case, the next 11 days are as make-or-break as it gets. The story is the same as it's been in the jumbled-up Western Conference: after Thursday's disappointing showing, Portland is now 12th in the west standings, but somehow only a game and a half out of sixth. The morass of (deep breath) Dallas-Minnesota-Golden State-Phoenix-Utah-Clippers-Oklahoma City-Portland is going to keep flip-flopping every night in the standings until one team separates itself. As it stands, all eight of those teams can comfortably be described as "unserious" for one reason or another.
The Blazers close out the month with five more games at home, against the Lakers, Spurs, Jazz, Raptors and Hawks. Those are all teams they should, in theory, be able to beat, if they can get out of their own way. Lately, that's been a pretty big if. They're running out of time, if not yet running out of hope.
"The time is now," Lillard said. "We've fought so hard with injuries and we had a losing streak. A tough road schedule. We're three games under .500 now, and we've got a home stretch of all winnable games, games that we're going into it expecting to win. The time is now, if we just lock in and just make it happen. It's very possible. It can be done. I keep saying, it takes your mind being right. We can’t be discouraged with how games are going. You've got to stay encouraged. You've got to stay sharp in your preparation, and your mind's gotta be right collectively, so we can come in and do what we do. That's how these things turn around. Like I keep saying, I've been a part of this enough times. It may seem like, 'Man, we don't want to keep hearing this same thing.' But for the people involved, I know what has to be done for us to just hit our stride and it starts to work."