HOUSTON – After another blowout, there is no longer room for lip service, excuses or promises from the Trail Blazers.
The team’s play has been so surprising, so disappointing and so prolonged now that even their ever-positive leader couldn’t avoid a blunt assessment.
“We kind of suck right now,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It’s that simple.’’
The Blazers’ star wouldn’t get much of an argument from anybody who watched Thursday’s 126-109 loss at Houston. The Rockets sliced through the defense so easily and so often that Portland could leave boasting of one thing:
It may be the NBA’s worst defensive team right now.
Can the defense get better? Evan Turner looked wide-eyed at the question before answering.
“Sh*%, it can’t get no worse. Right?’’ Evan Turner said incredulously. “It’s gotta go somewhere … ‘’
Portland last season was at best a mediocre defensive team and for long periods was among the softest in the league, particularly inside and at protecting the rim. When nothing was done in the offseason to improve the deficiencies – save for signing an injured Festus Ezeli, who has yet to play – the problems have only become more pronounced, magnified in part by heightened expectations.
After outrebounding an injury-depleted Utah team in the opener, the Blazers have yet to outrebound a team again, including 54-41 on Thursday, which came one game after allowing Chicago to grab an NBA-high 67 rebounds.
They also give up points in the paint at an alarming rate, as much an indictment on the guards allowing penetration as it is the big men from protecting the rim.
Coach Terry Stotts continues to credit the opponent – pointing out that Denver is among the best offensive rebounding teams, and that Chicago crashes the boards among the best of them, and that Houston gives a lot of teams trouble – but each time he does that he is diminishing the accountability this team must have if it expects to be half as good as they imagine.
In the last eight days, the Blazers have been down 48 to the Clippers before losing by 31, down 17 to the Nuggets, down 26 to the Bulls and 25 to the Rockets.
“We’ve been bad on offense, bad on defense … we are trying hard but we are not always making the smartest plays,’’ Lillard said. “We just not very good right now.’’
On Thursday, Lillard’s frustration was the most emotion we’ve seen publicly from the team, outside of reports of Stotts’ halftime speech against Denver and Maurice Harkless’ postgame speech after an overtime loss in Phoenix.
Mason Plumlee sat blank faced in front of his locker long after the game. And CJ McCollum combed his head with a brush, looking shell-shocked.
“We just have to get better, that’s all there is to it,’’ Harkless said Thursday. “It’s frustrating because we know we are better than this but we have to keep working.’
The most consistent refrain from the team is their lack of communication on defense, a subject that Lillard has been harping on since early in the preseason, when he called the Blazers a “quiet” team.
“Communication has to pick up,’’ Turner said. “We have to continue to take it more personal and draw a line. It’s not OK for teams to go on 10-0 runs, 15-0 runs … especially with where we are trying to get to. Defense is a team game. If somebody misses a read, or assignment, it's going to have a domino effect, and you mix that in with not being a great rebounding team, it's going to be tough. Not being great rebounding and transition (defense) ... you are going to have results like this.’’
For as pointed as some members of the team were Thursday, there was no finger pointing and no back-biting. They say they are still a tight and together team, one that will lean on that chemistry to pull them out of this funk.
“Usually when things like this happen, you’ve got to keep fighting, stay with it,’’ Lillard said. “It’s important for our team to stay together and I think that’s one of the biggest strengths of our team – we stay together. If we try to stay positive and keep working and fighting, at some point it will click, and we will get it right.’’
The next chance is Friday, at New Orleans.