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Trail Blazers Don't Need to Tank to Be a Lottery Team
A disappointing loss to the Knicks showed that pulling the plug isn't necessary to get the same results.
PORTLAND, Ore. — The Trail Blazers are still not tanking. Not because the organization doesn't understand the benefits of ping-pong balls, but because they simply don't have to.
On Tuesday, they lost by 16 to the Knicks in a game they led by as much as 16 in the first half. It was their 17th blown lead of at least 10 points this season, coming less than a week after a particularly demoralizing collapse in Philadelphia. And they didn't even need to shut anyone down to do it. Jerami Grant was out with a quad bruise, but Damian Lillard played, and played a lot. 39 minutes, to be exact, after missing the road trip finale in New Orleans with a last-minute flare-up of the calf issue from November.
If they were tanking, one would think the game-time decision on Lillard would have gone the other way.
No, they're still going for it ("it" being the final play-in spot, which they're three games out of), as of this second. But intent doesn't trump reality, and the reality is that the Blazers can try to win these games all they want, but that will only go so far. 69 games into the season, most teams are what they are, and what the Blazers are is a lottery team.
"It's definitely frustrating when you're fighting for something and you look at the last two weeks and it's like, we let a lot of opportunities slip away," Lillard said after the game. "And then you look at what everybody else is doing that's in the same spot we're in, and you see teams taking advantage of those opportunities and we're not, and you fall behind. That's what's frustrating. Especially with where I am, and what our plans were coming into the season and where we are right now, that's frustrating."
The thing about this team that's so tough to square with the results is the starts of some of these games. In both Tuesday night's game and the one in Philadelphia, the team that came out to start played free and had a solid gameplan, and then they just…stopped doing that. The good version of that team exists somewhere, and it comes out in stretches. But more and more lately, those stretches haven't been enough to sustain even one of these wins against good teams, let alone any real shot at making a run back into the play-in.
"It's been tough for me to put my finger on," Chauncey Billups said when I asked him after the game why they aren't able to sustain the big leads they build. "I think the biggest thing is, we don't focus for long enough. And another thing that disappoints me is, when we get these leads, we don't play the same way. Sometimes, you get the lead and start to let your guard down. And their team starts to get momentum and it's tough for us to stop them. So it's a couple different layers to it, but it's very disappointing. And it's deflating to get these leads and be playing so good. One thing I don’t like on my team is frontrunning. I don't like that at all. Sometimes, you're gonna jump out there and have a good quarter or two, and then like any NBA game, teams are gonna make a run. And if we can't keep the same energy we had when we were ripping and running, that's a bad quality for a team. It's happened to us too many times this year. We just don't have the resolve that we need when teams fight back."
The Blazers will find out quickly whether they'll be able to get that resolve back. 12 of their final 13 games of the season are against teams either above them in play-in range or outright playoff teams. Or, in the case of the Celtics team they face on Friday, a genuine title contender that just beat them handily in Boston a week ago. And then the Clippers, who have their own issues but are still solidly in the mix.
They're not tanking, but it doesn't matter. The way things have gone, they may lose enough games to get the same result either way.
"For me, we've got the next four or five games that are gonna be the deciding factor," Lillard said. "If we come out on the short end, at that point, we're three games behind the 10th place, that's like the back-end of the play-in. These next four or five games is gonna tell the story. We'll know where we are at that point, and it will be very obvious what we should be doing once we get to that point."