By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
So it’s come to this for the Trail Blazers.
“It was a fine line,” said Terry Stotts.
When coaches and players start talking about fine lines, we usually know what side they’re standing on.
This time it was Chris Bosh getting a piece of Damian Lillard’s layup that resulted in a 93-91 loss at Miami on Monday night. It was the second straight defeat to open another critical five-game road trip for the Blazers. It was their eighth loss in the last 10 games. It was one more black mark on an awful road record — 6-13 — since Jan. 1.
Yes, the Blazers are playing without injured All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who will miss his seventh straight game with a back contusion Tuesday night in Orlando ( 7 ET, League Pass) with no word yet on a return. Just as important, the Blazers have been playing without a sense of urgency or purpose, especially at the defensive end for more than a month, collectively shrugging their shoulders and figuring they’ll be able to shoot themselves out of their funk with the next barrage of 3-balls. Whenever that happens.
“There’s no reason to panic or start to worry about the season getting away from us,” Wesley Matthews said a couple of weeks ago after the Blazers lost in Houston. “We all know what we’re capable of doing. We all know how to play. It’s just a matter of us playing our game.”
That would seem to be the biggest part of the problem. While the Blazers have the No. 1 rated offense, they rely far too much on outscoring their opponents rather than trying to stop them. They’re careless with the basketball, slinging around difficult or careless passes and telling themselves that somebody will make a shot when they need it.
The Blazers were the surprise of the first month of the season. Nobody, even the Blazers, expected that to hold up in the face of the consistent play of the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers. Yet on March 1, after beating the Nuggets at home, Portland was 41-18 and firmly in the battle for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Now the Blazers, as the fifth seed, are only a game up on Golden State at No. 6 and only three games from dropping all the way behind Dallas and out of the playoffs completely.
Portland’s last extended road trip was a 1-4 disaster, bottoming out when Aldridge crashed to the floor in San Antonio, landing hard on his back. Then the Blazers flew to Charlotte to open another five-game set — and it looked like the entire roster had simply missed the flight. They lost in to the Bobcats 124-94 on Saturday before Monday’s loss to Miami.
With a schedule that is fast getting late — 11 games left — and a season of goodwill that is slipping rapidly through their hands, there is a combination of denial about what’s happening and a refusal to change. Nic Batum continues to ride the roller coaster offensively, even in the absence of Aldridge and the need for him to step up. Matthews and Dorell Wright are careless handling the ball. And when the bombs-away approach isn’t working, they’re in deep, deep trouble.
“I don’t think it’s a larger issue,” Matthews told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian after the disaster in Charlotte. “We played bad. They played well.
“If you kill us, you’re gonna look dumb come next game. Because we’re going to be a whole new team, we’re going to be the team we’re supposed to be. So go ahead and kill us. And you’re going to have to come back and see us in the locker room and be like, ‘Aw shoot.’ So I’m just going to save you. Write that. Write it all.”
Yes, write it down. Portland went into Miami on Monday night and took the Heat to the edge. But LeBron James made the bucket to win the game, Lillard didn’t and the Blazers came out living in that gray area of relativism.
In and out. Make or miss. A fine line where teams in trouble seem to spend too much time tip-toeing on the wrong side.
“We’re tired of losing close games,” Stotts said. “But you can’t help but be proud of the way we competed.”
It’s come to this for the Blazers. Moral victories instead of real ones.