Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers

PHOENIX – In the aftermath of the Trail Blazers’ latest loss Wednesday, with the frustration and sting of an overtime loss to Phoenix still fresh as the cut on the right side of Damian Lillard’s cheek, a voice broke through the silence.

“Most of the time,’’ Allen Crabbe said later, “it’s Dame or CJ (McCollum) who speaks up.’’

But this time, it was one of the quieter players on the team: Starting small forward Maurice Harkless.

According to players, Harkless talked mostly about the team’s soft defense. He talked about the team’s lapses in concentration. And he talked about the need to start performing to the expectations this team had set for itself.

“It was frustration knowing we are better than we are playing now,’’ said Crabbe, whose locker in Phoenix was next to Harkless.

What Harkless said was nothing groundbreaking. Nothing the team didn’t already know. But there was something about it, something about the person saying it, that resonated. In the locker room after the game, Harkless speaking up was mentioned by Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Lillard and Crabbe.

“It was the same message as we have been trying to get across to each other over the past couple of days,’’ Lillard said as he walked to the team bus. “Usually, Mo is more quiet about it, but obviously tonight he was more urgent about it, a little more … aware. It was basically: We’ve been talking about it; it’s time to do it.’’

 

The Blazers are now 2-3, and Lillard noted they are dangerously close to being 1-4 or 0-5. The problems range from a porous defense, to an ineffective second unit, to an almost nightly stretch in games where they are outscored by double digits.

Yes, it’s only five games, a mere step in the marathon that is the 82-game NBA season. But Harkless’ postgame gumption seem to strike a chord with his teammates: It’s time to stop talking about it and time to start doing something about it.

 “We have to draw a line,’’ Turner said. “Our voices are picking up, and it’s not so much coming from the coaches as opposed to it’s coming from players. It’s about being accountable.’’

Harkless left the locker room before his teammates started revealing his postgame stance, therefore was not interviewed.

But his stance Wednesday seemed to indicate a maturing team that no longer has to rely on the tone and force of Lillard’s leadership.

“Everybody here respects each other’s opinion,’’ Crabbe said. “It’s not like we are barking at each other, we are just pointing out things we need to work on. So, speak what’s on your mind … obviously (with Harkless) it was something positive, about something we need to change, so we heard him out.’’

Harkless’ assertions came on the heels of Turner speaking at halftime, after the Blazers closed the half being outscored 14-3, which resulted in what was once an 11-point lead disintegrating into a 57-53 deficit.

“For me, it’s about putting your two cents in,’’ Turner said of his halftime contribution. “But it has to come collectively. We need to consistently be vocal on the court.’’

As Lillard walked to the team bus Wednesday, it was with a clenched jaw and biting words. Very seldom in his four-plus seasons has he sounded as irritated after a game as he did Wednesday.

 “It’s time to respond,’’ Lillard said. “We can work hard and communicate to each other what is wrong and all that, but at some point all that becomes BS. All that matters is actions, and that’s what it’s time for. It’s not a panic or nothing. But we are better than what we are doing in a lot of areas. That’s what it comes down to.’’

Long before Harkless spoke up Wednesday, the team knew its defense was in question, and the key to whether they would be a contender in the Western Confernce. But after five games they have the seventh worst defensive rating in the NBA at 106.3 and have given up a league-high 53.2 points in the paint per game.

 

Turner was asked if defense was his main concern with the team right now. He chuckled as if that was an understatement.

“Obviously,’’ Turner said. “I think assertiveness is going to be huge for us right now. We have to be the more imposing team at all times. Right now we are doing it at certain points, but we need to do it consistently at a high level.’’

Turner pointed to little things: him boxing out, but not driving the taller player far enough away from the basket. Or him giving his man a forearm check, but not hard enough to let the player really know he was there.

If anything, Harkless and his postgame initiative appears to have sparked both a self-awareness and a conversation inside the team.

“We have some professional guys in here who have been through a lot,’’ Turner said. “The most important thing is we are showing we care, because if we didn’t care it wouldn’t work. I think we will figure this out and nip it in the bud.’’

But as Lillard repeated in the locker room and during his walk to the bus, talk is becoming cheap. He liked that his teammates are joining him in being vocal and displaying leadership, but he also knows talk can be cheap unless it’s followed by action.

“We have been fortunate to win two of those games and not be 0-5,’’ Lillard said. “But we just have to fix stuff. Our actions have to be better. We have to pick it up with our team defense. We have to be sharper for longer spans of times. We are going to score the ball, but our team defense has to be better, for longer.’’

He stopped short of the team bus, the last to get on, but before he would board, he left one assurance.

“We will fix it,’’ Lillard said. “It will get fixed.”