The Blazers were off to a strong start this season, winning 30 of their first 38 games and, if Wesley Matthews is to be believed, were striking fear into the hearts of their opponents at the very same time.
But injuries to big men Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland significantly impacted the defense, and Portland has lost eight of its last 10, partially due to their absence.
There are other issues at play, too — like some low-percentage outings from Damian Lillard, and a general inability to close the opponent out. The games have been close; all of the losses during this slide came by seven points or less, save for one rough outing on the road against the Spurs in Kawhi Leonard’s return from injury. But what’s really missing, at least in the eyes of Matthews, is a certain level of swagger that at one point had other teams concerned before the opening tip.
From Mike Richmond of The Oregonian (via Basketball Insiders):
Whatever the reason for the down turn over the past ten games, Matthews knows the Blazers need to figure it out and get back to the execution that made them elite group in the first 40 games of the season.
“It’s about getting better, It’s about winning, it’s about playing the right way, it’s about getting back to what we were and who we were when we were feared,” Matthews said.
“We’re not feared right now. I don’t think teams come into the Moda Center and fear a game. I don’t think teams know that when they wake up and have shootaround at their place that the Trail Blazers are in town. That was like that earlier in the season. We’ve got to get that back and we can.”
To be fair, the amount of teams each year that are truly feared, even in a small capacity, is a very short list. It might have been the Heat and the Spurs last year, and it might be the Warriors, Grizzlies and possibly the Cavaliers this season.
Being feared (which seems silly the more we keep saying it) is a luxury that is earned by running your opponents off the floor by wide margins on a seemingly nightly basis. Portland was that good at times earlier this season, but it’s questionable at best whether their opponents ever gave them quite that level of pregame respect.