The feeling inside the Trail Blazers locker room was some combination of frustration and resigned optimism.
After falling to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night, and losing for the sixth time in seven games to drop to 4-8 on the year, the Blazers were believably frustrated. The optimism was mostly by default.
It’s still November, the marathon NBA season is just beginning and for all of Portland’s clear and obvious issues, players pointed to the 70 games remaining on the schedule as the biggest reason to be hopeful the team can find its footing.
“It’s a long season,” Hood said, uttering a refrain that his teammates would echo. “Nobody’s in the playoffs right now. I don’t care if they’re number one in the league or number one in the west, everybody is fighting and figuring out everything. Nobody has tailed off and took off from everybody else. By next month we could be up there at the top so we just got to continue to stay positive and get better.”
If the Blazers are going to make as dramatic a turn as Hood suggested and end up in the top of standings by December, most of that progress will come on the road. Wednesday’s game against the Raptors was a brief pit stop in Portland before the Blazers head out for an 11-day, six game trip, finally returning to Moda Center the day before Thanksgiving.
Even early in the season, this trip looks daunting because this team has obvious flaws.
The Blazers are still searching for answers at power forward after losing Zach Collins to shoulder surgery until at least mid-March. With a combination of injuries and poor play, Terry Stotts has mixed and matched groups to open games, trotting out his sixth different starting lineup of the season in Game No. 12 on Wednesday.
Stotts turned to Nassir Little against Toronto. The rookie played hard and mostly held his own. It was an encouraging performance even with Little going 3-for-10 from the floor in 23 minutes. Frankly, going with the high-energy rookie at that spot might be the Blazers best option as Anthony Tolliver has been ineffective at best and Mario Hezonja isn’t suited for a big minute role.
Beyond who starts, the Blazers desperately need to figure out how to finish games. Other than a face plant at Golden State, the Blazers haven’t been rolled over in most of their losses. Instead their consistently dropping games in crunch time, out executed or outworked at winning time. The Blazers have a league-worst 122.8 defensive rating in the fourth quarter, and they are the second worst defensive rebounding team in the final frame.
“Sometimes it’s not just because we can’t get a stop. It’s we can’t get a rebound,” Damian Lillard said. “If you give up two and three opportunities to an NBA team you’re going to get scored on.”
The reasons for frustration inside the locker room are obvious. The injuries, the shifting rotation and repeated late game letdowns are already threatening to derail this season in its early stages. And yet most of the Blazers said they were optimistic or even encouraged.
“You gotta just keep going. You gotta keep fighting," Lillard said. "I think that we should be encouraged by the fact that we’ve lost a lot of games the same way. We’ve been in the mix. We’ve been right there down the stretch and we lose games down the stretch. I think that’s one thing we can’t forget. But like I said before, we can’t fold. We gotta just keep coming, continue to try to correct the mistakes and the things we already know how (to do) to win games."