ORLANDO — The Portland Trail Blazers fell to 45-27 on the season, 19-18 away from the Moda Center and 0-3 on their current five-game road trip with a 95-85 loss to the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center Tuesday night.
“It’s difficult to win games when you don’t get the rebounds that you need, you don’t defend the way you should and you don’t make shots the way we’re capable of,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “This is a very, extremely disappointing loss and in fact it was a game we needed to have.”
The win ends Orlando’s nine-game losing streak. At 20-52 on the season, they own the third-worst record in the NBA ahead of only the 76ers and Bucks. The Trail Blazers, playing once again without their starting power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, had one of the best records in the Western Conference against Eastern Conference teams prior to the trip, though that is no longer the case after three-straight losses, two of which were by double-digits to teams with losing records.
Portland shot 37 percent from the field and 27 percent from three while turning the ball over 15 times. Portland, a team ranked second in the NBA in points per game at 107.3, have failed to score at least 100 points in their last three contests.
“They played with more energy,” said Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews, who finished with 18 points, three assists and a rebound in 35 minutes. “They rebounded the ball. We scored 85 points. We are a team that scored in the hundreds, so regardless we have to win games. We need to keep playing basketball and play with an urgency.”
Urgency was nowhere to be found for the Trail Blazers in the second quarter, as the Magic used a 16-0 run to take control of the game against a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Orlando was able to extend their lead to 14 by the start of the fourth quarter with the Trail Blazers unable to mount any kind of sustained rally. The Magic would push the lead to 17 in the final quarter before coasting to a 10-point victory.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong, I just think we are out of rhythm,” said Damian Lillard. “Everything isn’t flowing as easy. Obviously we do not have (Aldridge), which takes away our biggest inside presence or that balance of being able to go to the block. The shots that we are used to making aren’t going in. Some of our coverages defensively are loose and we are a step slow getting into it. Teams are getting baskets that we shouldn’t be giving up. There are a number of things we need to do better to get a win.”
The Trail Blazers were led by Robin Lopez, who went 9 of 13 from the field and finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds in 40 minutes.
“Robin (Lopez) kept us in the game with all of his put-backs, his rebounds,” said Stotts. “He played almost the whole second half. We’d get the ball to him on rolls, and he gets his offensive rebounds and that’s how he helps us offensively. He played a terrific game. He played his ass off tonight.”
As if losing to one of the worst teams in the NBA wasn’t enough, the Trail Blazers fell to a half game ahead of the Warriors for the fifth seed in the Western Conference. But what’s much, much worse is the Trail Blazers, once considered a sure-fire playoff team, are now just 2.5 games ahead of the Phoenix Suns, a team on the outside looking in as the ninth team in the West.
“I think we are just in a new territory for some guys,” said Lopez. “It is late in the season, and the playoffs haven’t started but essentially the playoffs have started. We need to realize that.”
After losing seven of their last 10 games, the conversation regarding the playoffs in Portland has gone from whether they could secure home court advantage in the first round to whether they’ll simply be able to qualify for the postseason with 10 games to play in the regular season.
“We have to have an urgency,” said Stotts. “We have to defend. We have to do the little things to win games. We have to realize that’s not going to come easily. And that has to be our approach going into every game.”
A postseason birth seemed like a foregone conclusion just a week ago, but three-straight losses and recent wins by the likes of Memphis, Dallas and Phoenix have added another level of pressure to a team trying to stay afloat without their best player.
“It’s a sense of urgency to get wins, as it should be,” said Aldridge, who said after the game that he hopes to play in Portland’s next game versus the Hawks in Atlanta on Thursday. “We’ve definitely let ourselves slide too far and we all want to get wins right now and we understand the magnitude of trying to take care of business right now. So I think everybody knows the importance of winning right now.”
It’s one thing to know that winning is important. It’s entirely another to be able to go out and do it. Portland will try to do just that Thursday in Atlanta. Tipoff is schedule for 4:30 PM.
Let’s state the obvious: the sleeved jerseys options that the NBA and adidas introduced a few seasons ago have not been well-received among the league’s players. Though one wouldn’t necessarily think that adding of a few inches of fabric on each side of a traditional basketball jersey would be all that controversial, that relatively small change has been roundly disapproved by most of the NBA’s rank and file. Whether it’s Lebron James trying to rip off his uniform mid-game or Robin Lopez tweeting that they should be put on a pyre and burned, reaction to the sleeves from the players has mostly been negative, so much so that it’s possible the jerseys get scrapped when Nike takes over the NBA uniform contract next season.
But you can count the Portland Trail Blazers as supporters of the sleeves, so much so that they’ve asked to wear their sleeve “pride” uniforms, better known as their “Rip City” alternates, for the remainder of their home games in the second round, and for good reason. The Trail Blazers are undefeated in their “Rip City” sleeve jerseys this season, a streak that has expended to the three playoff games in which they wore said uniforms in the first round.
“We haven’t lost in ‘em,” said Damian Lillard of the “Rip City” sleeve jerseys. “We typically play well in those uniforms, but I’ve always been a fan of the ‘Rip City’ jerseys, even before we added sleeves to them. It’s one of my favorite uniforms. Now that they put the sleeves on them, that’s just what it is. I like the look, it’s different.”
The NBA would typically prefer that teams wear their sleeved jerseys no more than four times throughout the course of the playoffs, which would make the next time the Trail Blazers wear their “Rip City” jerseys, as they plan to do in Game Three Saturday night at the Moda Center, the final appearance of the sleeves in the postseason.
But fear not, you lovers of sleeves and Trail Blazers victories, as the NBA will allow the team to wear their “Rip City” jerseys for at least the remainder of the second round. It didn’t take any haggling, just a simple request, which the league approved without incident.
“I reached out to the league and told them what jerseys we were going to wear for the second round and they said ‘Ok,'” said Trail Blazers equipment manager Eric Hallman, who is in charge of all things uniform for the team, via email. “There was no back and forth about if we could or could not wear the ‘Rip City’ jerseys.”
Hallman typically asks Lillard, as the captain of the team, what uniform he wants to wear when the choice is up for debate. And both due to affinity for the jerseys and the notion of not fixing what isn’t broke, Lillard has asked that the Trail Blazers wear the “Rip City” jerseys whenever possible. That decision has been supported by the entirety of the team, as they are all aware of their 7-0 record between the regular and postseason when wearing their sleeve option. After all, when going up against a formidable opponent like Warriors, nothing can be left to chance.
“I ain’t superstitious, but maybe we shoot better (in the ‘Rip City’ jerseys),” said Lillard. “We play in sleeves in practice every day. Every day you got sleeves on, so maybe that has something to do with it. We haven’t lost in them, so we’re going to take our chances.”
Of all the adjectives one could use to describe the 2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers, “resilient” might be the most applicable. Despite being the third-youngest team in the NBA this season, the Trail Blazers have been remarkably adept at bouncing back. Whether it was replacing four of five starters from the season before, enduring two losing streaks of at least five games or finishing the season by going 33-18 after starting the year 11-20 to make the postseason and finish fifth in the Western Conference, the Trail Blazers, under Terry Stotts’ steady hand, have shown a level of maturity with regard to the way they’ve dealt with disappointment that belies their relative youth and inexperience.
Which is good, because they’re going to need every last bit of fortitude they can muster to get over their fourth-quarter performance at Oracle Arena in their 110-99 loss to the Warriors in Game Two of the Western Conference semifinals. Despite leading by as much as 17 in the game and 11 in the fourth quarter, the Trail Blazers were outscored 34-12 in the final 12 minutes, resulting in an 11-point loss and a 2-0 series deficit.
“They’re not a young team, they’ve got a lot of guys that have been around, they’re very smart,” said Damian Lillard of the Warriors. “They see slippage and they go after it. If they see something that they can take advantage of, they take advantage of it. In that last five minutes (of Game Two), we just let our foot off the gas a little bit. I don’t know if it was fatigue mentally but we had some mental mistakes. One or two plays got them going, they got into it and the better they played offensively, they just got sharper defensively. That hurt us.”
While every loss stings, Portland’s loss in Game Two seemed to be more painful than most, for multiple reasons. First, the Warriors have lost at Oracle Arena just twice during the regular season, setting the NBA record for most consecutive home victories in the process, making the unfulfilled opportunity of beating the defending champs on their home court, and in a playoff game no less, a rather bitter pill to swallow, especially after leading for all but the last five minutes of the game. The Trail Blazers will have to beat the Warriors at least once at Oracle to move on to the Western Conference Finals, and one could argue that they won’t get a better chance to do so than they had Tuesday night.
“After that game, I was pretty hot about that one,” said Lillard. “Just because not only was it a great opportunity, but we had it. It was right there, all we had to do was four and a half, five minutes where we just got to be as sharp as possible. That was the challenge for us, just lock in even more, take it to a new level. Instead of that, we went a little bit downhill and they picked it up the way we needed to pick it up. We just wasn’t able to finish it. It sucked man. I was pretty hot about that one.”
And then there’s the matter of soon-to-be two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who has sat out the last two games with a sprained MCL in his right knee. While the Trail Blazers are in no way rooting for Curry to remain sidelined, the simple fact is they have a much better chance of beating the Warriors when the best player in the NBA is in street clothes. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said the Curry would probably sit out Game Three as well, though it seems very unlikely he misses another game this series at Oracle, which, once again, makes the loss in Game Two that much more disappointing.
“I can’t speak on behalf of (the rest of the team), I don’t know how they feel personally, but it’s a game we should have won,” said CJ McCollum. “It’s unfortunate that we let it slip away. That’s what good teams do, they hang around and they finish off games at home. We’ve got to be better than that and I think we will be better. Got to move forward now and take advantage of Game Three.”
Luckily, the Trail Blazers have a bit of extra time to put Game Two behind them. While they have shown an ability to learn from their mistakes and move on this season, some players admitted that Game Two going down the way it did was lingering a bit. And in those situations, sometimes the best solution is playing another game as soon as possible, though that might not be the case this time around.
“Yesterday, I didn’t even want to see a basketball,” said Lillard. “I wasn’t even going to watch the playoff game yesterday until I heard Cleveland was hitting a bunch of threes, so I wanted to see for myself. But I didn’t even want to have nothing to do with basketball yesterday after that game.”
But after a day away from the game, Lillard and the rest of the Trail Blazers returned to their facility in Tualatin to prepare for Game Three at the Moda Center. If they’re able to make the improvements and adjustments necessary to get their first victory of the series Saturday night in Portland, they might truly be able to move on from what happened Tuesday night in Oakland.
“Ain’t nothing I can do about it now. In my mind, it’s over,” said McCollum. “It’s unfortunate that it had to happen but we can learn from it. We can’t sulk and moan and act like it’s the end of the world. We’re down 0-2 against a very good team. Now we’re at home, now we have a very good opportunity to take advantage of two home games and learn from mistakes in the first two games.”
Now back in Portland for games Three and Four of the second round series versus the Golden State Warriors, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net/TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studio to record a Game Two recap edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this latest edition we discuss Portland’s collapse in the fourth quarter of Game Two that turned what looked like a rare road win at Oracle Arena into an 11-point loss, how the Trail Blazers go about putting that game behind them before Game Three at the Moda Center, the reports of Stephen Curry sitting out Game Three, Maurice Harkless’ defense on Klay Thompson, the overall quality of the defending champs and answer a few questions about Game Three adjustments, Portland’s locker room, Draymond Green, how far we can run at this point in our lives and a few more random things that I’ve already since forgotten.