Early on in this young season the Trail Blazers defense looks much improved and is a big reason they are 2-0 following a 114-96 win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday. Portland scored 62 points in the first half, and defensively was giving the Pacers fits. The second half started sloppy, but then CJ caught fire, scoring the final 12 points of the third quarter. Once The Closers checked in, it was all over.
Player after player marched into the auditorium one by one at the Trail Blazers' practice facility Sunday to meet the media one last time this season. It was a part of their final official day of the season that also included physicals and then exit interviews with Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts..
You can find those Trail Blazer media sessions all in one spot right here on this website, if you choose.
The main event of the day, of course, is always the sessions with the brass. Stotts and Olshey met the media together, seated side by side at a table behind microphones. I think it would be possible to take that appearance as a not-so-subtle symbol of solidarity. A united front. Everybody on the same page, if you will.
The session lasted 26 minutes and 50 seconds and Olshey -- one of the NBA's great orators -- used the first 15 minutes and 51 seconds to answer questions. Stotts got a few minutes here and there, but most of the audio came from the team's president of basketball operations.
While he admitted that the team has "A lot of issues that need to be addressed as the result of the very abbreviated postseason," Olshey also expressed a preference for judging his team on the 82-game regular season, rather than the four-game playoff sweep.
He also mentioned that he felt the media missed an important storyline of the past season -- How important the character and chemistry of his players was to the success of the team. "The way they stayed together," he said. "We never fractured. You never heard that narrative. We stuck together."
So there is that.
And there was no fracture Sunday, either. The real story from exit-interview-day was that there was no real story. The players all said the right things and so did Stotts and Olshey. If you were expecting conflict, controversy or even just a few fireworks, you came to the wrong place.
Look, if I missed that story during the regular season I'm certainly not going to miss it now, at season's end:
No fracture. They stuck together.
Well, at least the Portland Trail Blazers are now going to get plenty of help with planning their future. When you get swept out of the first round of the playoffs by a team seeded lower than yours, everyone has an opinion.
And often it’s an angry or shrill one.
Almost immediately after the Game 4 loss Saturday on social media there were the demands to fire somebody (or everybody) or trade somebody (usually someone important).
But as hard as it is to be calm at a time like this, that’s what I’m advising.
I remember the words of the Trail Blazers’ very first general manager, Stu Inman, who told me once that best practice is to “take some time away from it. You need to find the time to take the emotion out of it and make rational decisions.”
In other words, chill. As hard as that sounds.
Look, this team isn’t going to be playing another real game again until mid-October. There is no rush.
I still recall the aftermath of that painful loss to the Lakers in the seventh game of the Western Conference finals in 2000. Portland could have won that series and with it, the NBA championship. It was so close.
But the immediate thought coming out of that series was that the Blazers needed more bulk to deal with Shaquille O’Neal. In reality, so did everyone else in the league. But that summer, Portland dealt young Jermaine O’Neal to the Indiana Pacers for Dale Davis in a trade that hurt the franchise for a decade, while Jermaine was making six all-star games.
So all I’m saying is to be careful before charging ahead full of anger or spite. Make sure that what you want to do is going to be better than what you already have.
Do I think changes are in order here? Yes, of course. But after watching every single game this season, I’m still not sure of how to go about fixing this thing.
You want the coach fired? Better make sure you can find a better one out there and also make sure you don’t cause a player mutiny in your locker room.
You want the general manager fired? Well, for every mistake he’s made, there’s been a good move, too. You want to trade a good player? OK, make sure you’re getting something good in return and that the deal isn’t going to come back and haunt you for years to come.
There have been a lot of people fired here over the last several seasons. A lot of trades executed, too.
There have certainly been a lot of general managers here since Geoff Petrie, and none of them has been as successful. A lot of coaches since Rick Adelman, too, but I don’t see any NBA Finals appearances.
Change for the sake of change is never good. Be patient until you have a clear plan for the future.
Then do whatever you think is right because something should be done. But in the aftermath of that first-round debacle, it’s no time to make irrational decisions.
Sunday was Exit Interview day for the Trail Blazers at their practice facility and you can watch any of the interviews in their entirety right here.
Keep tabs on Jason Quick and Dwight Jaynes on twitter as well as here on our website for full off-season coverage of the team.
Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts
"Just like I can accept the credit when I do great things, I accept the criticism and all the bad things that people might have to say about me when it doesn't go well because that's part of my responsibility as the franchise player." -- Damian Lillard
Exit Interviews: Damian Lillard
"Just like I can accept the credit when I do great things, I accept the criticism and all the bad things that people might have to say about me when it doesn't go well because that's part of my responsibility as the franchise player." -- Damian LillardPosted by Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, April 22, 2018
Exit Interiews: CJ McCollum
"My expectations for myself are high. My expectations for this team are high and will continue to be. And regardless of how it finishes I can live with failing, I can live with losing because I know I'm putting my heart and soul into this game." -- CJ McCollumPosted by Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, April 22, 2018
"The way I finished the season, I feel shame. The way we had a season like a team, a group, be in position to be third in the West and finish like this, it’s not good. It’s not something you should be proud of because all you do through the year is fight for playoff, to be in position to have good postseason… Right now, it stings." -- Jusuf Nurkić
Exit Interviews: Jusuf Nurkić
"The way I finished the season, I feel shame. The way we had a season like a team, a group, be in position to be third in the West and finish like this, it’s not good. It’s not something you should be proud of because all you do through the year is fight for playoff, to be in position to have good postseason… Right now, it stings." -- Jusuf NurkićPosted by Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, April 22, 2018
Exit Interviews: Meyers Leonard
"I came in this building every day with the goal of working as hard as I could, and have everyone hopefully recognize my willingness to be a good person, a good teammate and always willing to work and be a pro." -- Meyers LeonardPosted by Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, April 22, 2018
Exit Interviews: Pat Connaughton
"I got a taste of it, and I'm looking forward to building upon it this summer, instead of being satisfied with it, really making sure I put in even more work." -- Pat ConnaughtonPosted by Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, April 22, 2018
Exit Interviews: Ed Davis
"I’ve been here three years, so the comfort level is there. Since I’ve been here, the fans supporting me… The guys in the locker room. I enjoy it here. I still think this team has a lot of potential. We still can get some places." -- Ed DavisPosted by Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, April 22, 2018
Zach Collins Exit InterviewPosted by Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, April 22, 2018
NEW ORLEANS – The Trail Blazers over the years have experienced the pain of playoff loss, but it’s been a while since a series left a mark like this one to New Orleans.
“I think this one probably hurts a little more because we had such a great season, and we came in with really, really high expectations,’’ Damian Lillard said.
Unable to stop Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, and unable to solve the defensive schemes of New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry, the Blazers were swept Saturday after a 131-123 loss at Smoothie King Center.
“They were the better team for four games,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “They outplayed us, they outhustled us, they were more physical.’’
The 13-game winning streak, the Northwest Division title, the three seed and hosting a first-round playoff series were all erased with the ease of a Holiday layin and the force of a Davis follow dunk.
“I felt like coming into this playoffs, there was no way you were going to tell me we weren’t going to have a Game 5. You know?’’ Blazers big man Ed Davis said. “I mean, you can tell me, somebody was going to beat us in six or seven, but no way swept.’’
Davis surveyed the quiet locker room, with players cutting tape off their ankles for the final time.
“I mean, we are all shocked right now that we got swept by a team that we really felt like we were better than,’’ Davis said.
Perhaps most shocking was the inability of the Blazers to free Lillard from the layered Pelicans defense that used two and sometimes three players to trap him.
After having his best overall season in his six-year NBA career, Lillard had his worst playoff series, being held to 18.5 points while shooting 35 percent from the field and amassing 16 turnovers to his 19 assists.
“You have to give them credit for how well they executed offensively and they came in with a great defensive game plan, threw something at us we haven’t seen, and it worked out for them,’’ Lillard said. “We just didn’t play great. We didn’t have our best series.’’
The loss brings the Blazers to a crossroads: Continue full speed ahead with the NBA’s youngest roster to make the playoffs? Or break up a core that has lost 10 consecutive playoff games?
“Ultimately, you are defined by the postseason,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “I think it’s a little early to say what direction we are going to go and what needs to be done moving forward, but one thing is Neil (Olshey) is really good. We’ve been to the playoffs five straight years and he continues to change and build the roster. I’m pretty confident with that.’’
Lillard, who in January met with owner Paul Allen to discuss the direction of the franchise, said Saturday that he believes the franchise is doing all it can.
“I feel like to this point, we have,’’ Lillard said. “We’ve done what we can, but obviously there is room for improvement, especially when you come up short in the playoffs and get swept. Obviously there are a lot of things that can be done better on our part as an organization and as players.
“But for me, the same thing remains: I’ll go back to work and do my part,’’ Lillard said. “Everybody has a job to do and I’ve got to focus on what my job is.’’
Al-Farouq Aminu, who had a standout series with averages of 17.3 points and 9.0 rebounds, said he hopes the team is allowed to grow together.
“The core of the team is still really young and these are some of the lumps we will have to take in order to get better and continue to grow,’’ Aminu said.
The Blazers have four free agents – starting center Jusuf Nurkic; Davis, the NBA’s top reserve center; reserve Pat Connaughton; and reserve Shabazz Napier.
Davis, for one, says he wants to return.
“Like I’ve been saying since Day One: I hope I’m back here,’’ Davis said. “I hope July 1 at midnight we have something done and it’s over with. That’s what I’m hoping and banking on.’’
For now, the Blazers will lick their wounds and try to forget the dominance of Anthony Davis (33 points, 12 rebounds, 2.9 blocks), the two-way play of Holiday (27.8 points) and the masterful game-management of Rajon Rondo (11.3 points, 13.3 assists) and look ahead to the future of Zach Collins and what should be the prime years of Lillard and CJ McCollum’s careers.
“I think we should be proud of what we did in the regular season,’’ Harkless said. “And then just learn from what happened in this postseason.’’
It was an ending that no one saw coming as the Trail Blazers got swept by the Pelicans in the first round.
Hear from Coach Stotts, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the Talkin' Ball podcast:
Join me and the rest of Scoop Nation try to make sense of what just happened in the playoffs on the final Scoop Postgame show of the season...
The Trail Blazers battled back from a double digit deficit but came up a few points short in their bid to avoid a 1st round sweep. The Pelicans duo of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis proved to be too much for the Blazers' defense combining for 88 points.
CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers in scoring with 38 points.
Scoop Postgame Show:
Scoop Postgame Show
That’ll do it from Smoothie King Center… Blazers drop Game 4, 131-123. The Pelicans are moving on… Let’s hear from YOU, #RipCity right now on The Scoop.Posted by NBC Sports Northwest on Saturday, April 21, 2018
NEW ORLEANS –If there is a snapshot that captures this first round series, it was taken in the third quarter of Game 3, and later framed for all to see around the NBA.
Anthony Davis soaring in, untouched, and grabbing a rebound with his left hand and flushing it for a dunk. Trail Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic was literally floored, knocked to his hands and out of the way by Davis’ athletic and physical play.
In the aftermath of the play – which gave New Orleans a 79-60 lead – Pelicans’ guard Jrue Holiday stood at Nurkic’s feet and pointed in wide-eyed dismay at him. For a long time. Too long.
It was everything this series had become: a laugher, an embarrassment for the Trail Blazers. And it underscored why it had become so lopsided: the Pelicans beating Portland to another ball, a Pelicans’ star shining while the Blazers remained frustrated. And overall, another example of New Orleans being more aggressive, more physical and more … everything.
“Outplayed us in every way,’’ Lillard would say after the Game 3 blowout. “Every way, man.’’
But what about that show of disrespect by Holiday? The pointing. The posing. The mockery of it all?
Fittingly, the Blazers were apparently oblivious to Holiday’s actions, even though they had a front row seat for it, and even though it was splashed across the internet Thursday night.
“Huh?’’ Nurkic said when asked about it Friday. “I didn’t see it.’’
“Did he? I didn’t see it,’’ Lillard said. “When things going well for you, you do stuff like that. That’s I guess kind of something you do when you are feeling really confident, you are feeling yourself a little bit. It’s not like we’ve done anything about it .’’
CJ McCollum was shown a clip of the play. He shrugged his shoulders and chose not to comment.
And if the Blazers’ coach took offense to it, or thought anything of it, he didn’t say Friday as Terry Stotts was strangely made unavailable to the media even though he was 10 feet away from the camera and microphones, talking to Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations.
According to a team spokesman, there wasn’t enough time for Stotts to talk, because the team had to practice, which ignored the fact that the team was more than 15 minutes late in arriving.
In all, Game 3 magnified what in this series has been a strange display by a team that prides itself on culture, hard work and accountability.
At least Lillard on Friday showed some spunk and fight as Saturday’s Game 4 neared. When asked about making adjustments, he said he wanted to see the Blazers adjust their physicality.
“They were up into us a lot. A lot more aggressive than we were and we didn’t dish it back out,’’ Lillard said. “I think in the playoffs and a situation like this, when a team is coming for you like that, you have to maybe go out of your way to do it back. Even if that means some foul trouble or some altercations happen out there or whatever, but when a team comes from you like the way they did after last game, maybe we just need to make it a point of emphasis to go back and get back at them.’’
The Blazers have tried talking about adjustments to counter the Pelicans’ traps and gameplan against the backcourt, but their plans are both not working and not being executed fully.
“It’s easy to draw up and say this is what we want to do after you watch film,’’ Lillard said. “Then when you get out there and they are playing so disruptive … they’ve got their minds set on what they are going to do – it’s hard to execute it.’’
Defensively, the Blazers are in the spin cycle. Three different Pelicans have scored 30 or more points in the first three games – Anthony Davis (35 in Game 1), Holiday (33 in Game 2) and Nikola Mirotic (30 in Game 3) – all while Rajon Rondo has played the defense like a yo-yo.
So maybe there was nothing for Stotts to say, and no change in the game plan needed.
“Coaches can only do so much,’’ McCollum said. “They are not guarding Mirotic, they are not guarding Jrue holiday, or Rondo, or any of these guys. So it’s on us. We just need to play better.’’
If they don’t, Game 4 will bring a sweep and more finger pointing in their faces.
Down and almost out, the Trail Blazers seem just as bewildered as you and me about the way their first-round series with New Orleans has turned out.
Just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. And there are no easy answers. Portland, a team so reluctant to use double-teaming as a defensive tactic, is just about completely befuddled by the Pelicans' double teams. A roster that rattled off a long winning streak during the second half of the regular season, is now incapable of getting the job done. The coach, once being talked about as a longshot candidate for Coach of the Year, is seemingly not making necessary adjustments. The team's best player, being talked about as a possible first-team all-NBA selection, has been virtually shut down for three games.
What in the heck is going on here?
Well, I will address the problems as best I can and as directly as I can. They are many and sometimes contradictory:
- If players are being double-teamed to the point Lillard is, other players obviously have to emerge to hit open shots. That's simple math -- two people guarding one person means another person should be open. But to take advantage of that, the ball must move quickly to the open man and the open man must be able to make an open shot.
- Very often, the Trail Blazers invite the double teams with their high pick-and-roll. It makes it easy to simply blitz the screen and get the ball out of Lillard's or CJ McCollum's hands. Often, those players themselves call for that double team by calling for the high pick. New Orleans is obviously one of the best pick-and-roll defensive teams in the league, so... why not run something else? Why keep going back to something that isn't working?
- The safety valve against double-teams in Portland's attack is almost always the big man coming to the foul line for a pass. He can then turn and face the basket, knowing he's going to be facing a three-on-two situation. The problem for the Blazers has been that it's been Nurkic in that position and he isn't a threat to make a shot from where he receives the ball. Consequently, his defender -- usually Anthony Davis -- is still free to roam the basket area. Perhaps someone else could play that spot who can make an open 20-foot shot?
- And speaking of making open shots, the Trail Blazers have needed front-court shooting for two or three seasons now. You can tell me how well Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting all you want, but he isn't reliable or consistent and opponents still leave him open because they don't think he can convert. He's not a floor stretcher. The Blazers need long-distance shooting that will help open the court for Lillard and McCollum. This is not a new problem.
- On the defensive end, the Trail Blazers continue to attempt to use Aminu to defend bigger players and it hasn't gone well. Against the Pelicans, it creates a terrible matchup for Jusuf Nurkic, who then must chase Nikola Mirotic around on the perimeter. While Aminu may do a marginally better job on Davis than Nurkic, the latter cannot come close to defending Mirotic, so it forces Nurkic to the bench in favor of a better defender. This is a defensive tactic by Portland that forces its third-best player, Nurkic, to the bench. And oh well, it may not matter because the Blazers aren't making good use of him on offense, anyway. If they don't get him out of that high pick-and-roll into one closer to the basket, he's not nearly as effective. He needs to catch close enough to the rim that he doesn't need to put the ball on the floor.
- I believe there's also been a Portland effort problem in this series. For whatever reason, the Trail Blazers have been outhustled. This happened at times during the regular season but I don't understand it. Especially in the postseason.
- The ball has to consistently move around the floor more often. When the Blazers are playing well, they move the ball and move bodies. Too often this season, things generate into the guards going one-on-one and in the playoffs, that's a hard way to win. When I talk to people around the NBA about this team, that's a criticism I hear often -- the guards are too dominant. But considering the shot-making ability of the forwards, can you blame them?
- This thing has gone way off the tracks in the playoffs and I've outlined several things that are responsible. But the other thing that's gone unmentioned is that the Pels just might be this much better than the Trail Blazers.
- What can be done at this point to change things for the better? The easy answer is nothing. But I'd at least like to see more effort in Game 4.