The Portland Trail Blazers hoped their path this season would end with a playoff run. Instead, Portland appears to be on a trail toward the lottery. Part of the issue is one of extreme misfortune, but a good portion of the team's struggles can simply be blamed on all-around poor play.
The Trail Blazers entered last Friday's game against the Boston Celtics with a 19-20 record while sitting in fifth place (dead last) in the Northwest Division. Despite their mediocrity, they were only 1.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Alas, they wouldn't come close to making a dent in that lead. In fact, it felt like a miracle that Portland only lost one game in the standings after their systematic destruction by the Celtics.
Somehow, the Blazers did enough to muster an early 10-8 lead, but completely fell apart, surrendering a 10-0 run and finishing the quarter in a 27-17 hole with nine turnovers. Things only got worse as the game progressed, with Boston opening the second quarter on a 16-0 run and heading into the break with a 35-point lead. A three from Celtics captain Paul Pierce early in the third put Portland in its biggest hole, a deficit of 43 points. The Blazers had a whopping 17 turnovers in the first half and finished with 28.
"That's an unprofessional approach," said Blazers head coach Nate McMillan. "There was no basketball being played out there tonight. We didn't play with enough effort to give ourselves a chance to win this ball game tonight. We knew that Boston would be very aggressive tonight after their loss and they were. They came out, they jumped on us and we never [were] into this game. We can play harder than that, we can play better than that. We pretty much allowed that team to jump on us and I don't think we responded."
The way the Blazers have been playing, they are far likelier to wind up in the draft lottery than the playoffs. Portland has now dropped five of seven games since the All-Star break and was 6-8 in February.
But all of their poor play can't be blamed on them. This once-proud franchise has faced a tremendous amount of adversity this season alone.
Brandon Roy's abrupt retirement due to degenerative knees was undoubtedly the biggest blow dealt to the franchise. Roy, a three-time All-Star, had averaged 19.0 points in five seasons in Portland and built a reputation as one of the league's premier two guards. Roy's decision came as a shock to most, but he had dealt with several knee injuries throughout his career that were cause for concern.
Another significant setback came when center Greg Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, suffered another season-ending knee injury, resulting in surgery. Oden, whose skill set and success at Ohio State made him a widely accepted (though not unanimous) top choice in the draft over Texas' Kevin Durant, has played in only 82 games spread throughout two seasons. Oden injured his right knee and had surgery before his rookie season on Sept. 14, 2007, and was sidelined for the whole year. He then suffered a left knee injury on Dec. 5, 2009, and was again forced to have surgery and miss the year.
There's no time for self pity, though, and the Blazers had to play the cards they were dealt after the devastating losses and just move forward.
"You have to put that behind you," McMillan said. "That was at the start of the season. For us, we pretty much had to go out into free agency and add some players to our roster. The retirement and injuries, it's a part of what you have to deal with, and that's long behind us. We're trying to rebuild this team and go with the guys that we were able to pick up in free agency."
Portland now sits at 20-21 after a win over the Washington Wizards on Saturday and is still 1.5 games behind the Houston Rockets for the final playoff spot in the West, but this isn't where McMillan had envisioned his team would be at this point of the season.
"We haven't played as well as we thought we would be playing at this time, but [we're] still working at it," McMillan said.
One of the bright spots for Portland has been 26-year-old forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Now in his sixth season in Portland, Aldridge is averaging a career high in points (21.8) and is averaging 8.2 rebounds, marking the fifth straight year that he has averaged more than 17 points and seven rebounds per game.
Aldridge started the season well, scoring 20 or more points in five of the Blazers' first eight games. Portland opened the season strong at 7-2 before its struggles began.
"Lately not so well," Aldridge said when asked how the Blazers' have responded to adversity. "Earlier in the year we definitely and coped with it and won games. We haven't been doing so well [now], but we have a bunch of new guys and we're still trying to mesh together with this lockout season."
"We're still fighting," said reserve Craig Smith. "It's a crazy season, though. A game every other day, not a lot of practice time for us to really jell together as a team. But overall, it's been pretty [good]. Unfortunate that our record is what it is, but we still have an opportunity to put ourselves in a good position."
Aldridge pointed to the Blazers' inconsistency as a major culprit for their recent struggles.
"We haven't been consistent," he said. "Some nights we look really good, other nights we look like we've never met each other."
All hope isn't lost, though, considering how close Portland is to a playoff spot. Their recent play hasn't helped the cause, for sure, so the Blazers have to focus on one thing and one thing only: getting into the postseason.
"Just the playoffs," Aldridge said about the team's goal this season. "Just try to take it game-by-game and climbing up in the standings, try to get in the playoffs."
If they can make it there, Aldridge believes they can make some noise, but first thing's first.
"Yeah we can," he said. "We can't talk about doing well until we get in, so right now we need to focus on making the [postseason]."