Time to tweak Blazers
What just happened to the Trail Blazers?
It would be easy to sum up their 2018 NBA playoff misfortune in two words: Anthony Davis.
That's a good answer. Just a little incomplete.
How did a team that looked like it could reach the Western Conference finals became the first team eliminated from postseason play in either conference.
A 4-0 loss? That was the last of the possible results we would have picked for the best-of-seven series with New Orleans.
But Blazers-Pelicans wound up looking more like a 1-8 matchup than a battle of Nos. 3 and 6 seeds who were separated by one win in the regular season.
For starters, the Blazers picked a poor time (Game 1) to play poorly. Losing the series opener put them in a hole that not only cost them their hard-earned homecourt advantage but also seemed to leave them in a foul, frustrated mood they never fully let go of the rest of the way.
Game 2 was more of the same — and it again highlighted one of the differences between the playoffs and the regular season. New Orleans had time to get its defensive scheme in order, and the Pelicans succeeded in forcing the ball out of the hands of Damian Lillard. The All-Star point guard repeatedly got sandwiched in double teams, often picking up his dribble and having no alternative but to try to complete any pass he could get off, to any teammate he could find.
Lillard and the team need to get better at handling that kind of pressure. They only see it on occasion during the regular season, but they should have been more prepared for a steady diet of it from the Pelicans in the playoffs. That part wasn't the finest hour for coach Terry Stotts and Co.
Beyond that, though, Lillard's surrounding cast wasn't up to the task against the Pelicans. And the Blazers simply got beat for too many loose or 50-50 balls, especially in the end-game situations at Moda Center.
The coaching staff was victimized by the lack of shooting and scoring threats up and down the lineup. No one else in a Portland uniform, with some apologies to Al-Farouq Aminu, was able to dissuade the Pels from their dogged pursuit of Lillard and somewhat similar effort against backcourt mate CJ McCollum.
In Game 4, Portland shuffled things around on offense and moved the ball much better as a team, the result being 123 points.
But the 6-10 Davis and New Orleans guard Jrue Holiday were up to the challenge, rasising their games to the tune of a combined 88 points as the Pelicans scored 131 and closed out the series.
It's easy to look at Game 4 and say this one was more representative of the Blazers, that it was a close game, and so everything is OK with the team going forward.
But if Game 4 had happened earlier in the series, it would have been lost in comparison with the others. And, as much improved as the Blazers were in Game 4, they still failed to win it.
Their defense never was able to slow the Pelicans' runaway train or seriously contest enough shots. And they got beat at the other end in transition, fast-break basketball (with lobs to Davis for dunks part of the problem there).
Was this just a necessary one step back before a young team (at certain spots) can go two or more steps forward?
Maybe, but it's clear that, while the Blazers could beat anyone on a given night in one game during the regular season, their nucleus needs to get better and go deeper.
While each team's individual stars are the key in the playoffs, others can play "X factor" and make a timely difference. Early in 2018, Nikola Mirotic was on the trading block, and Portland was one of the teams mentioned as a possible destination for the 6-10 "stretch" power forward. He wound up with New Orleans, and he torched the Blazers at key times in the playoffs while providing troublesome length on defense.
The Blazers looked so good when they were focused on climbing up the Western Conference standings. They probably can do similar things after the All-Star break next season (and maybe get off to a better start).
What they have to reassess is if they are built for success after mid-April, when opponents have time to zero in on the Portland guard duo that is high-powered but lacks in big-time help on offense and isn't above-average on defense.
Those 49 regular-season wins were great. But 49 is a lot closer to 46 — which would have left Portland out of the playoffs as the No. 9 team in the West — than to the 58 wins of No. 2 Golden State.
And now Portland is in basically the same state it was in after the 2016-17 season — with Lillard and McCollum in their prime but surrounded by question marks at the forward spots, in particular.
They have a roster of inconsistent rotation players such as Evan Turner, Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard and others who aren't in the same third-fiddle category of a Mirotic or Rajon Rondo.
Here is a vote, though, for coach Terry Stotts, a solid basketball mind and leader, even though New Orleans' Alvin Gentry got the better of him this time.
Help must come from the front office.
And, it would help if center Jusuf Nurkic, if he is retained, can keep himself on the court for more minutes and be more consistent in the points and rebounds he produces.
One option, of course, is to attempt a major shake-up in the front office, in coaching or in player personnel. That is owner Paul Allen's prerogative, his call.
The latter course wouldn't be easy, given various factors, including current salaries of some Blazers.
After six seasons at the helm, Stotts might not be immune from a hard look. But going in another coaching direction seems like an overreaction, on top of not being the right decision.
But, if the Blazers are going to play deep into May with their basic core, they've got to become more than the Lillard and McCollum Show, which takes bows in March but has proved to bow out in the playoffs.