One of the few things that have been consistent during the Damian Lillard era of Portland Trail Blazers basketball has been the team’s inconsistency.
Peaks and valleys, valleys and peaks, the cycle has been as constant as the personnel for the Blazers the past few years. It’s a familiar pattern by now; the Blazers would sputter out of the gates, recharge themselves at Christmas, rip off a big winning run before the All-Star break, and hang on to qualify for the postseason. Consistent inconsistency, typical of a young basketball team—and Portland has been one of the youngest for a while now.
That up-and-down dynamic, however, has been turned on its head and accelerated this season. The Blazers started well out of the gate for once, going 10-3 in their first 13 games as they rode a revitalized bench and a dominant Damian Lillard to the top of the West.
The “down” part, unfortunately, has been quite a killer. Portland has gone 6-10 since defeating the Boston Celtics on Veteran’s Day, and the team has slipped from first all the way to eighth in the West, back in the middle of a very large, very competitive pack.
Youth isn’t a credible excuse anymore, either. Lillard and Al-Farouq Aminu are both 28. CJ McCollum is 27. Evan Turner hit the dreaded 30-burger just a few weeks ago. These players play the most minutes for the Blazers and have at least six seasons of service in the NBA. The game of basketball has been described as a game of runs; in a game between roughly equal teams, the squad that lands the last haymaker tends to win.
The Blazers seem to apply this philosophy to their season-long play, riding the highs and sinking with the lows, incapable of maximizing the impact of the former and minimizing the impact of the latter—like the elite teams do. I guess we as fans should just resign ourselves to riding a roller-coaster during this current iteration of the Blazers.
There are hopeful signs even in this current downswing, though. The Blazers are still picking up wins versus clearly inferior teams like the New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Phoenix Suns, and they did take advantage of the Kyle Lowry-less Toronto Raptors on Friday (though if Kawhi Leonard had been more assertive, Portland would have choked away a winnable game versus an elite team). Portland is beating up on weaker teams; there just haven’t been many of them on their schedule so far. And there might not be going forward, unless a few teams experience a lull like the Blazers have. Every Western team not based in Phoenix has had good moments this season, even the bottom teams like Houston and Minnesota.
Maybe the New Year will bring with it one of those patented Blazer charges and give this team the spark it needs to overcome the squads equal to them (and those better than them) in terms of talent and record. Maybe the Toronto win will break them out of the funk, and we won’t have to wait for 2019 to see Rip City rip some asses on the court.
We’ll see. Peaks and valleys.
All games available on AM 620 Rip City Radio.
Monday, Dec. 17: @ the Los Angeles Clippers, 7:30 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: If the Blazers aren’t enough proof that things in the West are more volatile than a can of nitro bouncing around in the trunk of your mom’s 1970s hatchback, look at what happened to the Clips over the last couple weeks.
Since their last four-game winning streak—which included a victory over the Blazers on Nov. 25—Los Angeles has gone 2-6 in its last eight games and did a Portland-like tumble from first in the West to fifth. Tobias Harris is good, but he’s unequipped to be the kind of All-Star carry that Lillard is. In the two games the Clips won over their last eight contests, Harris scored 27 and 33 points. In the six losses, he’s averaged a mere 15 points per game.
Making matters worse, Lou Williams, the spark plug sixth man who’s the latest in a long line of Microwave scorers descended from the OG Microwave, Vinnie Johnson, is now injured. Sweet Lou pulled his hamstring and won’t be back until after Christmas. For a team that needs all the offense it can get, especially on nights when Harris and Danilo Gallinari are laying bricks, it’s a tough blow to take.
Things will continue to be bad for the Clippers in the near future, I think. 2019 can’t come soon enough.
Matchup to Watch: Tobias Harris vs. Al-Farouq Aminu. Piggybacking on my earlier point about Harris and his scoring, it’s imperative that the Chief do all he can to hamper, hound and harass Tobi into an ineffective night.
I expect Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner to get turns on Harris as well, but Harris is the Clippers’ best guy, and Chief is the Blazers’ best on-ball defender. It starts with Aminu.
Prediction: Williams going down tilts the scales in Portland’s favor. Blazers win.
Wednesday, Dec. 19: vs. the Memphis Grizzlies, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: We just saw these guys last week, so I won’t go super in-depth. I didn’t watch the last game, and I’m glad I didn’t. Portland put up a mere 83 points against the New Grit-n-Grind Grizz, and the game had a general air of suffocation. If it was anything like past Blazer-Grizzlies tilts, it was like watching a python constricting a deer.
Compounding Portland’s particular issues with Memphis is the Blazers’ deliberate style of play. Though they’ve sped things up in terms of pace from seasons past, the Blazers are still 19th in possessions per game and have been atrocious on the fast break. Playing a half-court style and not running out on the break plays right into the Grizzlies’ hands…or paws. They can key in on particular actions, and use the wits of their veterans and the athleticism of their younger players to disrupt and destroy any set plays.
Even the shots their defense is designed to concede can be tough; Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic shooting a combined 5-of-38 from the field meant that Memphis did its job. Hopefully the Blazers learned something after getting freed from the snake’s death grip.
Matchup to Watch: Marc Gasol vs. Jusuf Nurkic. If Nurk wants to be an All-Star someday, he has to play better against centers the caliber of Big Spain. No ifs, buts, or whats. Last week was a shameful display, and he knows it.
Prediction: Dame and Nurk aren’t going 5-of-38 from the field again. Portland takes advantage of tasty home cooking.
Friday, Dec. 21: vs. the Utah Jazz, 7:00 PM, NBCSNW
The Skinny: Sitting at under .500, 30 games in, is probably familiar territory for Utah by now—they’ve been as slow off the blocks as Portland has been the last few years—but it’s definitely not where the Jazz envisioned being after a breakout 2018 postseason. Hopes were high for this team following a torrid finish to last season, but this year’s squad hasn’t fully coalesced yet, for various reasons.
Despite averaging 21 points per game, Donovan Mitchell is in a sophomore slump. The dynamite guard took the NBA by storm his rookie year, but he’s finding out in Year Two that A) teams have crammed on his film for hours, particularly fellow Western playoff teams, B) players are treating him as a star now instead of a rookie, and C) grown men don’t like getting toasted by the kid rolling into the league as the New Hot S–t. Mitchell is shooting 30 percent from three-point range and is averaging a mere three assists per contest. When your best player is a poorer-shooting version of CJ McCollum, you’re going to struggle mightily in the West.
The issues aren’t all on Mitchell, either. Rudy Gobert is focusing more on his offense to the detriment of his defense; though Utah is still a top-10 defense, Gobert has slipped defending the rim. The Jazz need him to defend the rim like prime David Robinson for them to have a chance for long-term success, and when Gobert goes from all-time levels of production to merely a good rim-protector in the league, Utah suffers.
Ricky Rubio is shooting 39 percent from the field, and it’s looking like his shooting from last season was a mirage. Joe Ingles is doing his part, but poor Jingles needs to shoot above 40 percent from three to give this team a chance to be successful, and like Gobert, Jingles hasn’t been able to reach those prior heights in 2018-19. Derrick Favors is playing only 23 minutes a game, and any time he shares on the court with Gobert has killed Utah’s already-suspect offense. Dante Exum, Jae Crowder, and Alec Burks gave the team little on the wings and at the 4; Burks was traded for sharpshooter Kyle Korver a while back.
Utah was a trendy pick to win the Northwest Division and give Golden State some trouble in the playoffs. Unless Mitchell shakes off his slump, it’ll be a tough challenge to even make the postseason this year. The West is unforgiving, and the Jazz are finding that out the hard way.
Matchup to Watch: Donovan Mitchell vs. CJ McCollum. Like I said up top, Mitchell needs to be routinely outplaying sub-stars like CJ if he wants to realize his dream of being a top guy on a contender. He needs to be more Lillard than McCollum, even if Rubio is still dominating possessions as the point guard.
Prediction: I don’t feel good about Utah’s chances, but I feel even worse about predicting three straight wins for the Blazers this week. The good thing about this space is that I can’t be weak and push, so…Utah beats the Blazers. I don’t feel good at all about this, though.
Trail Blazers’ Record Last Week: 1-2
Trail Blazers’ Record Overall: 16-13
Jared’s Picks Last Week: 2-1
Jared’s Picks Overall: 13-16