Usually teams are good, bad or in between but the Blazers have been all three

Usually teams are good, bad or in between but the Blazers have been all three

It's been a very topsy-turvy season for the Trail Blazers so far. After a 4-1 road trip, I went to Moda Center Thursday night expecting to see a very good team. I did -- but it wasn't the Portland Trail Blazers.

I cannot remember a more unpredictable Portland team. Usually, a team is either good, bad or somewhere in between. So far, the Trail Blazers have been all of those things. And it's pretty mysterious. We're seeing things here we haven't seen previously with this same group of players.

And really, this is the same bunch we've seen for a few years now, other than the addition of Jusuf Nurkic, which should be a big help. But lately, offensive struggles have led to lineup and rotation changes on almost a nightly basis. Coach Terry Stotts has usually found his starting lineup and stable rotation by this point of the season but not this year.

Meanwhile, turnovers are coming in big embarrassing bunches -- a problem the Trail Blazers have seldom had under Stotts. On the other hand, this is one of the best defensive teams in the league and we haven't seen that very often, either. Portland is one of the best rebounding teams in the league but is horrific in turning those rebounds into fast breaks. The worst in the league in fast breaks. Also the worst in the league in field-goal percentage in the paint. The Trail Blazers have been prolific three-point shooters in the past but are now 27th in the league in three-point attempts.

What's going on? Well, I think part of the trouble is that opposing teams are loading up on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, figuring -- correctly, most of the time -- that if those guys don't score Portland is not going to be able to find offense anywhere else. There isn't a lot of firepower up front other than Nurkic, who has been up and down, too. The addition of Pat Connaughton to the starting lineup has helped, as it not only added another good three-point shooter but by his presence, it's opened the paint for Lillard and McCollum.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

It wouldn't hurt if another reliable scorer could be found but I'm not sure there is any way that can be done.

To be fair, the Western Conference outside of Houston's Rockets, has mostly not lived up to expectations. With all of the Trail Blazers' problems, they still sit fifth in the West, which is mind-boggling given how they have played. But it seems that Portland is squandering a chance to climb much higher if it played with more consistency.

The real question at this point is how owner Paul Allen feels about this. He's never been known for great patience and he's paying out a lot of money for this show. Would he make a coaching or front office change? Push for a franchise-altering trade? I don't know, but nothing would surprise me if this roller-coaster ride continues.

Trail Blazer defensive improvement a tribute to coaching staff

Trail Blazer defensive improvement a tribute to coaching staff

A few thoughts about the Trail Blazers after a dynamite 4-1 eastern trip, as I take a break from wading through the dozens of "Cyber Monday" emails still in my inbox:

  • Putting Pat Connaughton in the starting lineup was a very big boost in more than one way for Portland. Of course, it never hurts to have another reliable shooter on the floor -- he not only nails threes with regularity but the threat of him doing that keeps the floor spread for the guards to once again get some room in the paint. There has been no obvious decline in defense with him, either. And then there's those smart, hard cuts he makes off the ball, allowing Jusuf Nurkic to show off his passing skills at the post. I'd stay with it even when Al-Farouq Aminu returns from injury.
  • Now that Connaughton is getting extended minutes, I'd expect Portland's three-point attempts to go up. The Blazers are seventh in the league in three-point accuracy but 28th in the number of attempts. With the lack of fast-break points and points in the paint, I would think more three-point attempts will eventually be necessary.
  • So far, is this looking like Damian Lillard's best season? I hear people saying that but I'm not sure. He's had some very good ones. I would say this, too, the better this team plays, the better his chances of being an all-star.
  • CJ McCollum is soon going to be getting heavy all-star consideration, too.
  • I truly believe, even as well as they have been playing in the last few games, the Trail Blazers have a lot of room for improvement. Nurkic is still not quite in sync at the offensive end. He's shot above 50 percent in only three games this season and that's not appropriate for a man who gets most of his shots in the paint. When he gets it going the way he did last season, the Trail Blazers will take another step forward.
  • I don't think I've ever seen a team make a one-season defensive improvement -- with no coaching change and no real difference in personnel -- the way Portland has this year. It's ridiculous how much better they are. Of course it's still a relatively small sample size but as long as McCollum and Lillard continue their transformation into reliable defenders, the Trail Blazers should be at least a decent defensive squad.
  • Kudos to Terry Stotts and his coaching staff for engineering that defensive improvement. The Trail Blazers are a solid third in the league in defensive efficiency. Getting basketball players to defend hard every game is not easy at any level. Defense requires a lot of hard work that often goes unnoticed and many players would rather pay lip service to it rather than actually do it. In the NBA, it also requires intelligence and preparation. The coaching staff has made some technical and philosophical tweaks and some obvious changes in emphasis to pull this thing off.

Pat Connaughton, with embrace from Maurice Harkless, grabs his new role

Pat Connaughton, with embrace from Maurice Harkless, grabs his new role

NEW YORK – It was a revealing scene before the Trail Blazers’ game Saturday in Washington, when Pat Connaughton prepared to step onto the court for his second start of the season.

As he walked down the sideline before the opening tip, Connaughton slapped hands and exchanged quick hugs with several teammates. The last teammates waiting, near midcourt, was Maurice Harkless, the man Connaughton replaced in the starting lineup.

Harkless embraced Connaughton, and held on while speaking into his ear. It was by far the longest hug of any teammate in the line, and the show of support touched Connaughton.

“I always made sure I spoke some positive things before he would go out for the starting lineup, and now he has done the same for me, which I think has been really cool,’’ Connaughton said.

Connaughton replaced the struggling Harkless as the starting small forward before the Friday win in Brooklyn, and he said he has adopted a mindset to help his teammates in this starting role, a process he says has been aided by Harkless’ approach.

“In this league, you have to be ready to play every single night, and the decision Coach makes are the ones  you go with as a team, and the ones you trust as a team, ‘’ Connaughton said. “So I think (Harkless) has taken a real mature outlook on that, and he has been nothing but helpful for me.’’

Connaughton made an impact in the Washington start, finishing with 12 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block in 37 minutes. Beyond the boxscore, he guarded Wizards guard Bradley Beal for the final 8:53 after CJ McCollum picked up his fifth foul. Beal went 3-for-11 in the fourth quarter. Connaughton also scrapped for a crucial rebound with 2.6 seconds left, and made both free throws after being fouled.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest special $31.50 price until Dec. 1 -- Click learn more and buy]

Team captain Damian Lillard said Connaughton coming through in crunch time moments like that have strengthened his already considerable trust in the third-year wing.

“My trust level with Pat is like very, very high,’’ Lillard said. “He is always solid, always going to do the right things, knows every play, knows every coverage we are in and it just shows. To be able to come through and have those big plays … it just shows where he is maturity wise.’’

Part of that maturity is knowing and embracing his role. Connaughton said he has adopted the mantra of his favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots: Do Your Job, which he says is to make his teammates better.

“His role is to be a role player,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “He complements the players he is out there with – he did that when he is coming off the bench and he is doing that as a starter. He doesn’t make many mistakes, he makes open shots, he makes hard cuts, he’s very alert defensively … To me it’s a perfect role for him right now.’’

Maurice Harkless and his struggles: 'I feel like I'm just out there'

Maurice Harkless and his struggles: 'I feel like I'm just out there'

PHILADELPHIA – A growing question inside the Trail Blazers’ early season has been the noticeable drop off in production from Maurice Harkless.

The Blazers’ starting small forward is not scoring. He’s not rebounding. He’s not producing much of anything these days

“I just feel like I’m just out there to be out there … I don’t know,’’ Harkless said Wednesday after he had 1 point, zero rebounds, zero assists and zero blocks or steals in the Blazers’ 101-81 loss in Philadelphia.

Harkless has never been a player whose value is best measured by statistics. He is primarily a defender, whose value is enhanced by his ability to switch and guard anyone from forwards to guards on pick-and-rolls.

But in Portland he has also been able to make an impact on offense by getting out in transition, scoring off offensive rebounds, and making quick cuts to the basket.

But little, if any, of those things are happening lately.

“I’m just out there, and that’s frustrating,’’ Harkless said. “I’m just out there playing defense, which is cool … running back and forth. Out there running track.’’

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $31.50 special until Dec. 1 -- click here to learn more and buy]

Coach Terry Stotts last week described Harkless’ defense this season as “solid … like the rest of the team” but his non-descript play begs the question of how much longer Stotts can afford to start Harkless when the team’s offensive woes are so prevalent?

I asked Stotts that exact question after Wednesday’s loss and received a blank stare. In other words, he didn’t want to address it.

Harkless, for his part, says he wants to contribute more, but is not sure how he can in this offense.

“We gotta figure out ways … not only me, but ways to get other people going,’’ Harkless said. “Every game it’s the same thing … we play through three people.’’

Harkless was referring to guards Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic, who have combined to take 57 percent of the team’s shots this season, which is about on par with what other talented trio take (Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook/Paul George/Carmelo Anthony take 60 percent of the Thunder’s shots while Golden State sees 55 percent of its shots go through Steph Curry/Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson).

 That leaves the likes of Harkless, Evan Turner, Pat Connaughton, Shabazz Napier and Noah Vonleh, to “get in where you fit in” to steal a phrase from Harkless.

“Everybody else is just …. It’s hard to get into a rhythm,’’ Harkless said. “It’s that simple.’’

To be clear, Harkless wasn’t whining, and he wasn’t trying to throw shade on teammates. He was being asked uncomfortable questions about his lack of production and he was trying to give explanations in the most professional and honest way.

“I’m not concerned … I don’t know. We just have to figure something out,’’ Harkless said.

In the last three games, Harkless’ impact has been minimal. Before his quiet night in Philadelphia, he had three blocks and scored two key inside baskets in the third quarter of a win at Memphis, which was the highlight of a 4-point, 4-rebound performance. The game before against Sacramento, he didn’t attempt a shot and finished with zero points, one rebound and two assists in 19 minutes.

Last season, he averaged a career-best 10 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field and 35 percent from three-point range. This year, he is averaging 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 40.6 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from three-point range.

It’s not like this has been a sudden development. Since a sterling debut, when his defense was one of the big talking points of the season-opening win in Phoenix, he has drifted into anonymity. He and I have had a couple talks along the way, addressing and analyzing where he is, and where he fits.

“It gets frustrating at times,’’ Harkless said after the Orlando game on Nov. 15. “I feel like I could bring more to the team. Especially on the offensive end. It just is what it is. The way we are playing right now, it’s just my role right now.

“I’m not going to try and go over the coaches head, or something like that, or complain. I feel like we are playing pretty solid right now, so I just have to do what I can do to help us win. When the shots come, I have to knock them down, and that’s it. I just have to make the most of it.’’

Part of the puzzle in unlocking Harkless is it takes other players to get him going. He rarely has the ball in his hands, and he has to score either on spot-up three’s or while slashing to the basket, both of which require somebody to make a play for him.

“It’s not like, I’m Evan (Turner) - when he comes in the game, he has the ball in his hands and he can shoot whenever he wants to,’’ Harkless said. “I’m pretty much in a position where I’m just waiting around and you have to pass me the ball. A lot of times I’m open and guys may miss me or I make a cut and they miss me. I just have to keep playing, I can’t worry about that stuff.’’

Last season, through the first 18 games Harkless was averaging 10 shots a game. This season, he is averaging 5.6. The difference, of course, is the Blazers now have Jusuf Nurkic.

Instead of Lillard and CJ and a supporting cast, the offense has become the big three and shots have dried up. Perhaps, too, has the movement, as more players know they aren’t likely to be involved.

Lillard, for one, says he tries to remain cognizant of the role players like Harkless, and keep them involved in the offense.

“If you want a guy to go out and rebound and defend and play as active as we want Moe to, you have to give him an opportunity to touch the ball and be involved with it,’’ Lillard said last week. “So I’m always conscious of who hasn’t gotten a shot, who is involved and who hasn’t been involved.’’

Stotts has often tried to start games by running a play for Harkless. And in the Denver game – a game in which Harkless got just two shots – the team turned the ball over twice early trying to get him the ball.

“His shot attempts are a product of the game,’’ Stotts explained, noting he is a player who excels in transition and scoring off rebounds. “And some of it is him looking to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there.’’

So, as the Blazers (10-8) try to gain traction offensively this season, Harkless is trying to figure out how and where he can help. It has been a frustrating endeavor because he understands and accepts his role, but also wants to, and knows he can, help more than he has so far.

“A lot of the things I do don’t show up on the stat sheet, that’s a part of the game we need and I know that’s a part of my role on this team is to do those things, ‘’ Harkless said last week. “But at the same time, I obviously want to produce a little more and get more opportunity to produce. So, I feel like a lot of that I create on my own, whether that be offensive rebounds or whatever. You look at last year, I averaged 10-11 points but a lot of it came from offensive rebounds and transition and stuff like that, and that’s stuff I create on my own.

“It’s frustrating playing and getting only two shots and the game and the game I did get 11 shots (Brooklyn), I made three. So it’s a little frustrating, but I just have to keep going and be ready for when the opportunity comes. It’s been hard with the inconsistency, but it’s part of the game, and it’s just the situation I’m in right now, and I just have to continue make the most of my situation.’’

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard defends coach Terry Stotts

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard defends coach Terry Stotts

Trail Blazers’ star Damian Lillard on Saturday went to the internet to defend coach Terry Stotts after fans showed frustration and offered criticism on the team’s Instagram account.

“I saw the Instagram post, and the most recent comment was about Coach Stotts, and I disagreed,’’ Lillard said Saturday before the Blazers played Sacramento.

Stotts has made several bold moves in the last week, ranging from benching starting center Jusuf Nurkic for all but 53 seconds of the fourth quarter of a loss to Brooklyn, to implementing a three-point guard lineup in that fueled a win over Orlando and Friday night inserting little-used Jake Layman and Meyers Leonard into the rotation in the first quarter of what turned out to be a loss in Sacramento.

The Blazers’ are 8-7 in what is considered a favorable early-season schedule, and have lost several close games, causing some fans to grow restless.

“People are going to talk; it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last,’’ Lillard said before Saturday’s game. “But the coaches don’t turn the ball over at the end of the game. The coaches don’t miss shots. The coaches don’t miss free throws. Coaches don’t forget and blow defensive assignments.

[NBC  Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 - click to learn more and buy]

“Now, If we was getting beat by 25 every night and not in position to win, then maybe you need a change,’’ Lillard said. “When a team isn’t competing or a team isn’t behind the coach, then that’s when you need a change. But when everybody is on board and everybody respects him, and we in position to win games. At that point that becomes a weak statement.

“That’s why we do what we do and people are spectators,’’ Lillard said .”Because they are so quick to give up and so quick point the finger, and that ain’t fair. This game ain’t fair but I wasn’t going to sit there and look at the comment and not say nothing because sometimes people can talk stuff into existence when there really isn’t much behind what they are saying.’’

Trail Blazers lucky that loss to Kings was by only four points

Trail Blazers lucky that loss to Kings was by only four points

My first thought Friday night after watching the Trail Blazers' latest debacle, that 86-82 loss at Sacramento, was that Portland had lost a game it should have won. But I must correct that appraisal ever so slightly. The Blazers lost to a team they should have beaten -- but they certainly deserved to lose the game.

In fact, it's difficult to figure out how they kept it so close. Check it out:

  • The Blazers shot 37 percent against a team not known for its defense.
  • The Blazers allowed one of the worst rebounding teams in the league to get a 44-44 draw on the boards.
  • The Blazers got only 12 points out of their starting front court.
  • The Blazers made only 7 of their 25 three-point shots.
  • The Blazers got only 22 points off their bench.
  • The Blazers turned the ball over 18 times.
  • The Blazers got only four points to go with four turnovers from Jusuf Nurkic.
  • The Blazers had ZERO (0) fastbreak points. Again.
  • The Blazers got only 28 points in the paint and made just 14 of their 38 shots in that area.

Just how in the world could you expect Portland to beat even one of the worst teams in the league with stuff like that going on?

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

And I haven't even mentioned that wacky lineup Coach Terry Stotts put on the floor in the second quarter that featured no starters along with Jake Layman and Meyers Leonard. I have no problem with either of those guys playing, by the way -- but just not together and not without a couple of starters out there helping them get their shots. Leonard and Layman came into the game having played a total of just 17 minutes apiece for the ENTIRE SEASON. Not that I think either of those players can't help this team -- they can at least make shots, as can Pat Connaughton, a career .404 shooter from three-point range who isn't getting enough looks right now.

Within a week, the local squad has lost to Brooklyn and Sacramento. But at least they got those losses the old-fashioned way -- they deserved them.

So here we are, headed into a Saturday night rematch with the Kings. Portland should win, of course. But the Blazers better make sure they deserve to win.

Revenge? Nurkic took Jokic completely out of the game Monday

Revenge? Nurkic took Jokic completely out of the game Monday

The talk prior to Monday night's Trail Blazer matchup with Denver was whether it would be a revenge game for Jusuf Nurkic. The Portland center, a former Nugget, insisted it was not.

After watching the way the game played out, I'm certain Nurkic took great pleasure in the outcome of the contest and the way he dominated Denver center Nikola Jokic. But what happened Monday night -- the 99-82 Trail Blazer win -- had a lot more to do with Nurkic's knowledge of Jokic from all those practice sessions when they were teammates, than it did with simple revenge.

Nurkic manhandled Jokic. And it seemed as if he knew exactly what he was doing -- just as he did last season in their meeting. And what he was doing was being physical with his former teammate. He made it a rough night, which Jokic didn't seem to like. Jokic went 2-for-9 from the field and scored six points on the same day he was named the Western Conference's player of the week. Jokic finished the game lurking around the three-point line, looking like a man who had lost his way.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Nurkic's dominance was the story of the night. The Nuggets' best player and a rising star in the NBA was taken completely out of the game. That was enough for not many to notice that Nurkic finished with a whopping seven of his team's 22 turnovers. I have no idea why Portland is suddenly experiencing an uptick in turnovers. It's certainly not because the team is forcing the ball upcourt on fastbreaks -- since the Blazers are at the bottom of the league in that department.

Since Coach Terry Stotts has been here, there's never been much attention paid to fastbreaks, partly, I'm sure, to keep the turnovers down. Bu,t if  you're going to turn the ball over anyway, you may as well try to run a little more. I would think. Those easy baskets off the break can perk a team up and can wake up an offense.

But it wasn't an issue Monday. Nurkic took care of that.

 

 

Shabazz Napier and the quote that keeps him going

Shabazz Napier and the quote that keeps him going

If one ever wondered what an example of fight, a picture of determination or a testament to the virtue of hard work looked like, people on the Trail Blazers will point you to the locker of point guard Shabazz Napier.

“I don’t know how you would put it, or what the politically correct way to phrase it is, but  …  Shabazz is a dog,’’ guard Pat Connaughton said. “He fights. All the time.’’

Added captain Damian Lillard: “He’s an every-day guy. That’s 100 percent a fact.’’

It is that fight, and that relentless work ethic that is at the center of one of the developing trends on the Blazers in the past week: the emergence of Napier in the regular rotation.

In the last three games, Napier has played 20, 20 and 15 minutes, marking the first time in his two seasons in Portland that he has played 15 minutes or more in three consecutive games.

“He’s had three good games in a row,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “Getting him on the court, in various capacities, is something that will probably continue.’’

He has earned the minutes through practice, where Lillard says Napier is “a handful to go against,” and by way of his performance when called upon. Against Memphis, he went 5-for-8 and scored 12 points, and against Brooklyn he went 5-for-7 for 11 points.

[NBC Sports Gold "Blazers Pass" 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 -- click to learn more and buy]

Then Monday against Denver, he had eight points and three assists, and helped direct a rarity in the Lillard-McCollum era – a six-and-a-half minute shift where neither star was on the court – during which Napier and the Blazers increased the lead from two to 12.

But while his teammates see his dogged practice approach, and fans see his ready-when-called-upon game performance, it has been something behind the scenes that drives Napier.

It’s a single voice, from back in his youth.

“My mother instilled this quote in me,’’ Napier said. “She said, ‘The easiest thing you can do in life is quit.’ That has stayed with me since I was young. I never wanted to be a quitter. I always wanted to win.’’

**

After he was the 24th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, not much has gone Napier’s way.

He started seven straight games his rookie season with Miami after Dwyane Wade pulled his hamstring, but by the end of the season he was out of the rotation, needed a sports hernia surgery and was eventually traded to Orlando for a late-second round pick.

He never found a role in Orlando and after one season was traded to Portland for cash, where he found himself behind Lillard and McCollum, two rising stars in the backcourt who average around 35 minutes a game. His prospects for playing time didn’t improve when the team also signed Evan Turner, a play-making point-forward.

“My NBA career hasn’t panned out like I wanted it to,’’ Napier said. “But at the end of the day, I’m not going to quit.’’

It’s probably too early to say if Napier has secured a set-in-stone role on this Blazers team, but as the team tries to find its early-season footing, Stotts hasn’t been shy in turning to Napier to gain some traction.

On Monday against Denver, the second unit with Napier, Connaughton, Turner, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis was instrumental in the comfortable 99-82 win over the Nuggets.

That included a seven-minute stretch to start the second quarter, when neither Lillard nor McCollum played, which Lillard figured was the longest time he has ever sat during a second quarter. It was also the first time in the past three seasons that Stotts has strayed from his security blanket of having either Lillard or McCollum on the court during a competitive game.

“It was something I actually toyed with going into the season … I wanted to give it a look,’’ Stotts said. “It worked out well tonight and we’ll see how it goes going forward.’’

If Napier and Turner become a reliable ball-handling duo, it could ease some of the wear-and-tear that Lillard and McCollum endure over a season. Last year, Lillard (36.2 minutes) ranked 9th in the NBA in minutes while McCollum (35.8) ranked 11th.

“He can do a lot of things, and he can definitely bring something to the game to give us a break,’’ Lillard said.

Part of Stotts’ willingness to experiment with the non-Dame-CJ lineup could be attributed to Napier’s steadiness. In 101 minutes this season, Napier has just two turnovers. Meanwhile, he is shooting 60 percent from the field (18-of-30) and has made 5-of-9 from three-point range.

“He’s in a tough position, because Dame and CJ play such heavy minutes,’’ Davis said. “But I think he should be in the rotation. He has proven that and given us a spark.’’

Napier would rather that spark turn into a fire, but in the meantime, he figures he will stick to his mom’s quote from his youth.

“I’m a competitor, and everyone wants to play. But this is not my first rodeo,'' Napier said. "This is my fourth year and it’s been like this the entire time, so I just keep working, keep pushing, and never lay on my laurels. I understand that if it’s going to come, it’s going to come. I just have to be ready for it.’’

Jusuf Nurkic's fourth quarter benching is perplexing

Jusuf Nurkic's fourth quarter benching is perplexing

Of all the head-scratching things that happened on Friday during the Blazers’ 101-97 loss to Brooklyn – and there were plenty of them – none is more perplexing than the fourth-quarter benching of Jusuf Nurkic.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

Just a few reasons why the Trail Blazers lost to the Brooklyn Nets

Just a few reasons why the Trail Blazers lost to the Brooklyn Nets

Throughout the game Friday night, even while the Trail Blazers were suffering through a rough third quarter, my feeling was that Portland still had control of the game. No matter how poorly the Trail Blazers played, I couldn't envision them actually losing on their home floor to the Brooklyn Nets.

But they did.

[NBC Sports Gold “Blazers Pass” 15-game Blazers package for fans without NBC Sports Northwest $34.99 – click to learn more and buy]

How does such a thing happen? Let me count the ways:

  • The most obvious thing first: Jusuf Nurkic didn't play during the final 11 minutes of the game. The Nets went with a small lineup so Portland obliged them by going small, too. In other words, the Nets dictated Portland's lineup throughout the fourth quarter. Nurkic was having a big game and that's the way the Nets lose -- by allowing the other team's big man to score virtually at will. This madness has got to stop. The league's fascination with "going small" is at epidemic proportions and it's fine if you have Draymond Green to defend small men or even Al-Farouq Aminu. But Aminu is out injured -- again -- and not available. And Green doesn't play for Portland. Yet, there the Blazers are, struggling on offense with less than their best lineup on the floor down the stretch of the game. Portland doesn't -- even on a platoon basis in the final minute -- turn the tables and make a little man try to defend Nurkic.
  • All of this happens, of course, because the Trail Blazers are so predictable on defense that teams just go to a high pick-and-roll late in games and wait for Portland;s inevitable switch on the pick. It happens every time and the opposing offense can get that big-on-small matchup whenever it wants. Heck, Portland even switches when there is no pick -- just players changing places. The Nets wanted it virtually every time down the court late in the game, leaving poor Davis, the lone big, to try to keep up with Russell. What would be wrong with changing coverages once in a while? Why not blitz the pick and roll and take the ball out of Russell's hands? I have no idea. But if you're going to just switch that pick-and-roll every time, you might as well leave Nurkic in the game because he'd be just as ineffective as Davis at guarding Russell.
  • Portland's starting guards were just 13-for-32 from the field. The Blazers, as a team, were only 7-for-20 from three-point range. That won't cut it. This team's ball and player movement continues to hit lulls during games. If that cannot be corrected, it's going to be a long season. The last thing I thought we'd be worried about this season with this team is the offense.
  • I'm getting a bit tired of mentioning this, but the Trail Blazers are last in the NBA in fast-break points per game. The only real reason for this to happen is that this team's coaching staff doesn't want it to run. Fast breaks don't happen by accident -- they have to be practiced. Obviously, a decision has been made that the risk (turnovers and rushed shots) is not worth the reward (easy, uncontested baskets). I just don't see how you survive in the NBA without at least an average number of fast breaks. Portland averages 4.6 points per game off the break. Golden State gets 27.2.

The Trail Blazers are better than a 6-6 team, given the schedule they've played so far. I expected much more than this and I think everyone connected with the team did, too