The fall of the Portland Trail Blazers

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Every person is going to have their individual sticking point. The one thing that they’ll point to, keep coming back to. For most, it will be Brandon. If Brandon Roy’s knees had held up, if he he had meniscus left in just one of his knees, it would have been different. Others will go to Oden. “He was great when he was on the court,” they’ll say (which is an exaggeration brought about by the circumstances but he was very good). “If he had just been able to recover, he would have been the missing piece.” Some will point to a tough matchup with the Mavericks (which most fans wanted and were surprised when they lost) that caused an inspiring team to fall short. And some will pin it on coaching, management, ownership, this player or that. And the fact remains.

We are witnessing the fall of the Portland Trail Blazers.

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It’s March 10th, and the Trail Blazers dropped to 19-21, two games back of the 8th spot in the Western Conference. By no means are they out of it. A five game winning streak likely puts them back in 8th. They are in the midst of a long road trip against tough opponents which makes things more difficult. But all of this belies how they’ve looked. And how they’ve looked is a ship taking on water.

They lost to the struggling Boston Celtics 104-86 Friday night, and at one point were down 40-17. It was one of those “There’s so much blood!” games where you want to look away, it’s so gruesome. They are 3-7 in their last 10, and 5-14 on the road. They have looked out of place, out of sorts, out of effort, and without much of anything in the way of basketball ability. One of their wins in this awful stretch came against the Spurs on one of those nights where Pop rests the Big 3. An inspiring win it was not.

Worse still are the non-court things in play. There is rampant talk that Nate McMillan has lost the group, that players want him fired, that guys are checked out. There’s dissension between those players playing out the year wanting to win and those playing out the year wanting to collect a paycheck and go home. All of the things you associate with a bad situation, that’s how this thing is described. The word “cancerous” has been tossed around repeatedly to describe the locker room. It’s as bad as it can get without gun play, according to most.

This, from a team that has always relied on the strength of its chemistry.

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You need to try and remember where this team came from. Portland fans are so dedicated, so committed, so passionate. They’re one of the iconic fanbases of the sport. The Lakers are loud and many. The Celtics fans proud and abundant. But Blazers fans are, to be quite honest, lunatics. You love interacting with them because no one cares about their team as much as they do, takes the team into their hearts the way they do. You hate talking to them for this exact reason, but that comes with the territory. And the Trail Blazers era wrecked so much of that.

They were disgraced, they were embarrassed, they couldn’t get behind their guys. But then this new era erupted and there was so much to be excited about. A young group that had no reason to dissolve. Brandon Roy was the phenom, the future “jersey in the rafters” kid. LaMarcus Aldridge was never given the top billing but worked his way to be the kind of impact player Oden was designated to be from draft day. Oden was going to make it all come together. Those years when the Blazers were rising to near the playoffs and then making their first appearance were filled with nothing but hope and confidence that this Blazers team would be a Finals contender for the next half-decade. What could go wrong?

Everything.

Nearly everything.

Ownership, too quick with the trigger on GMs who were good at their job. (Yes, multiple GMs in a three-year span, how does that happen?) Management too attached to ideas of players than production or what they can acquire at some points, and too rushed to bring in veterans at others. Injuries, of course. Dynamics. And a coach who always seemed to get more out of his guys than you could expect but not as much as you could demand.

And so it ends. A dream that was set on fire and left to slowly burn out, a reminder that being young and well-formed does not mean that team is destined for greatness, that it’s more than coaching, talent, and desire, that luck is often the determining factor in basketball fate. The trade deadline is five days away. While you’re waiting for that next move which is inevitably coming, if not a total blow-up, try and remember what this team meant, what they were supposed to be, and how good that made everyone feel. And use it to remind yourself that basketball can be melancholy sometimes. It can be disappointing. It can be sad.

The Blazers are on fire. But it’s not a disaster or a hilarious explosion or an egotist exploration.

It’s a funeral pyre.

God Save the Blazers.

John Wall scores 37 as Wizards down LeBron James, Cavs 127-115

Associated Press
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CLEVELAND (AP) John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 and the Washington Wizards began a challenging road trip by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-115 on Saturday night.

Wall scored 18 in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot 82 percent, and Washington held on down the stretch to avenge an overtime loss to the NBA champions last month.

James, who briefly wore goggles to protect an eye injury sustained Friday night, scored 24 and added 11 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love 17 for Cleveland, playing at home for the only time in a seven-game stretch.

Washington’s victory cut Cleveland’s lead in the Eastern Conference to a half-game over idle Boston.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

Associated Press
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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.

Kobe Bryant says he’s “only a phone call away” if organization needs his advice

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For the first time since he walked off the court in his final game, Kobe Bryant was back at Staples Center Friday night.

The reason was Shaquille O’Neal was getting a statue out in front of Staples Center (a building that may not have gotten built without the two of them). The two famed feuders sat next to each other and joked around through the ceremony. Time heals all wounds.

With the new management of the Lakers — specifically Kobe’s former agent Rob Pelinka as GM — there has been speculation Kobe could take on a role. He’s not looking for something formal, according to reports, but he didn’t say no, either, when asked.

I picture Kobe as a guy who someday buys a team, not a guy who wants to haggle with agents over the details of a contract. He’s not going to take on a day-to-day role, he likes the retired life and what he is building with the Kobe brand.

That said, the Lakers front office can use all the smart voices it can get as they try speed up a rebuild. They should give him a call every once in a while.