Trail Blazers are in a 'Funk,' and Nobody Knows Why
Another dispiriting loss to the Magic has the Blazers searching for answers.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Even despite everything, the Trail Blazers had a chance to send a game to overtime on Tuesday.
"Everything" on this night was the same stuff it's been for the past month. Untimely turnovers, missed wide-open looks, blown defensive rotations, minutes-long scoring droughts, all of it. Physically, Tuesday's loss to Orlando was the first game of a stretch of 10 out of 11 games at home for the rest of the month of January; spiritually, it was the fourth game of the nightmare road trip just wrapped up that saw them fall below .500 for the first time this season.
And even still, they had three great looks at a three-pointer to tie it on the final possession. Jerami Grant's initial attempt missed everything; Jusuf Nurkic's corner look rimmed out, and Anfernee Simons' final attempt fell just short. They could have sent a game to overtime despite starting two quarters just like they did at times against the Raptors and Pacers.
If they had come away from the night with a win, it may have been good for morale and helped them keep pace in the Western Conference mid-off, but it wouldn't have changed the fundamental reality that this isn't a very good team right now.
And nobody can figure out why.
"We're just in a little funk, man," head coach Chauncey Billups said after the game when I asked him why the long scoring droughts keep happening. "I don't know what it is. I can't really pinpoint it."
No one else has the answer, either, although they understand your frustration and confusion about why all of these seemingly preventable things keep happening.
"Fans, they want to see us win," Damian Lillard said. "Like, 'What's going on? Why are they doing this? Why are they doing that?' Even you guys [the media]. We play well, y'all are going to give us credit and say 'This guy did this, this guy did that.' When it's not going well, you guys say, 'What's going on? This isn't working, they've got to do this.' It's our job to just continue to push. That's how you get out of it."
Lillard is right about this: everyone wants an easy answer, even when there isn't one. Coaching has been the popular one lately (check out the replies and quote tweets to my tweet an hour ago of the "funk" quote from above). But I've covered teams that have tuned out their coach and this isn't one of them. The ever-present turnovers were actually cleaned up significantly in the second half (only four, to 12 in the first half), although there was an untimely one late in the fourth quarter, when Nurkic passed up an open three and the resulting play was a 24-second violation that completely killed a chance the Blazers continue cutting into the Magic's lead.
Nurkic, for his part, was willing to "put an address on it," as Billups likes to call his film-session singling out of players.
"These turnovers, man," Nurkic said. "I've got to own it. It's bugging me. I'm trying to do the best I can to facilitate, and it's not there. I'm hurting my team. My teammates, my coach, the coaching staff. It's not there, and I've got to stop doing it. If I'm not passing, I'm not passing. I've got to pass to the open man. At some point, especially half a season in, we've got to be better with that. It starts with me. I can't have five turnovers per game. I don't know if it's that number, but it feels like it. [Ed. note: Nurkic is averaging 2.6 turnovers per game this season.] I'm hurting my teammates way too much."
Lillard usually has answers for everything. He didn't get all the way there on Tuesday night, but he got closer than anyone else.
"When you're not making shots as a team, it can be disruptive," he said. "Making shots is when everything is flowing. The ball is moving around. But when you start to miss, as a team, the ball might stick a little bit. It takes away your rhythm. And I think that's what we're in right now. We've defended pretty solid. But our issue has been scoring the ball. The turnovers, valuing possessions, the pace, the execution, the things that we could be doing better to create better looks for ourselves offensively, we're just not doing consistently enough to have a consistent offense."
With Tuesday's loss, the Blazers fell two games below .500. If the season ended today, which it does not, they would be in the lottery outright, on the outside of the play-in race. They're also just three games back from the fourth-place Dallas Mavericks, who they just so happen to play twice back-to-back at home this coming weekend.
Denver, Memphis and New Orleans have finally begun to separate themselves as the clear top three in the west. But everyone else? As bad as the Blazers are right now, it's hard to feel like anyone in the 4-through-12 group is definitively better off than they are. And part of that is because Lillard's level-headedness is contagious. It's hard not to believe him when he said things are going to be OK, because if there's one thing that's been consistent about him throughout his career, it's that he doesn't say things he doesn't believe.
"We're in a ditch right now," Lillard said. "That's where you've got to be mentally tough. You've got to be able to not like these moments but you've got to be able to deal with them. To just keep pushing forward and not let it take us out. There are a lot of teams that are in the same place right now. A lot of 20-21, 21-20. We're kind of all in a bunch. And we're not taking advantage of that opportunity we have right now, but we're also not down and out like it feels."
A prolonged losing streak can go one of two ways—it can break a team or make them stronger. I asked him which end of the spectrum the Blazers are closer to right now.
"I'm on the team, so 'breaking' or whatever, going that way, ain't gonna happen," he said. "I'll just say that right now. It's gonna make us better down the line, just having this experience.
"There's going to come a time when we look back on it and go, "We didn't fold, we didn't make excuses.' That's the way this goes. The people that can handle that, are the ones that come out on the other side. The people that don't, those are the ones that usually break. That's not an option for us."
What We Saw
For paid subscribers, notes, thoughts and observations from the game, plus the Jersey of the Night: