Trail Blazers part of NBA West maze
Taking a look at the Trail Blazers a quarter of the way through the season ...
• A week ago, Portland was 12-5 and atop a very crowded NBA Western Conference race.
Now, heading into Wednesday night's Moda Center matchup with Orlando, the Blazers are 12-8 and sputtering after three straight defeats.
Two of them were blowouts against good teams on the road to end a six-game trip — Milwaukee (143-100) and Golden State (125-97). The last one was at home on Sunday, when the Los Angeles Clippers rallied from a 15-point third-quarter deficit to steal a 104-100 victory.
The Clippers shot .422 from the field, made only 5 of 25 shots from 3-point range, were outrebounded 58-48 and still found a way to win — largely a result of outscoring the Blazers 38-16 in the third quarter.
"We played a very good first half," Portland coach Terry Stotts said on his 61st birthday. "We scrambled around in the fourth quarter. But the third quarter was very disappointing at both ends of the court.
"(The Clippers) got into us (defensively) the second half, and we didn't handle it well. We didn't make the plays we needed to make at either end of the floor. That was the difference in the game."
"They picked up the pressure defensively, started getting a little more physical, a little more disruptive," said Portland point guard Damian Lillard, who scored 30 points but was only 12 for 27 from the field, including 3 for 13 on 3-point attempts. "They became the more aggressive team. Sometimes when a game goes a certain way the first half, you take for granted the things you did to put yourself in that position. We did that tonight."
• The Blazers are still seventh in the NBA in offensive rating and 10th in scoring average (112.7 points per game) despite three straight sub-par scoring performances in which they failed to surpass 100 points.
Stotts ordered up more 3-point shots this season, and the Blazers are burping them up at a rate of 32.8 attempts per game, shooting .350 from beyond the arc. Last season, they shot .366 while averaging 28.1 attempts from the 3-point line. This season, Portland ranks 11th in the league in 3-point attempts and 17th in accuracy.
The 3-point shot was the Blazers' enemy against the Clippers as they made only 8 of 38.
"We guarded the 3-point line well and forced a lot of in-between shots, and that's what we want," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. Maybe, but the Blazers still took nearly 40 percent of their shots from downtown, which isn't such a good idea when the rock's not falling.
• Portland's defensive rating has taken a dip from eighth two weeks ago to a tie for 16th.
"I'm concerned," Stotts said before the Clippers game. "It's not a trend I want to continue.
"We've played poorly on defense the last three games. The Knicks played a very good offensive game and had some guys make 3's who ordinarily don't. Milwaukee was a train wreck. (The Warriors) had two great players get it going. Hopefully, the numbers even themselves out over time."
"We're hitting a rough patch," Lillard said. "Early on, everybody's body was fresh, everybody's mind was fresh. The bounce was going our way. Everything was happening right for us. We did a lot of simple things to put ourselves in position to win games on both ends of the floor. Our communication was on point. On offense, we were much sharper.
"We just haven't been as sharp on either end of the floor. We've been too spotty. We don't have the luxury of doing that. We're not a team that can do what we want whenever we want. We have to play in a certain way, and our minds have to be in a certain place or we can get beat. It's fragile, the way we have to play to win games."
• Center Jusuf Nurkic, who was off to the best start of his career, exited in the first half of the Clippers game with a shoulder injury and did not return. Portland's medical staff was calling it a contusion before an MRI was to be done on Monday.
Nurkic is averaging 15.1 points and 10.4 rebounds in only 25 minutes a game and shooting .525 from the field. If he is out for an extended period, Stotts will rely on Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard in the post.
"It's going to suck without 'Nurk,'" Collins said. "He has had a hell of a year. We just have to pick up the slack. It's next guy up. We have to step up."
• Leonard has been playing outstanding ball as of late, scoring nine points and grabbing a career-high 16 rebounds — six off the offensive glass — in 24 minutes against the Clippers. No player in franchise history has had as many points or rebounds in so few minutes.
Leonard's reputation is poor as a defender, but he may be the best position defender among the Blazer big men, using his strength to root his man off the block. Leonard's defensive rating (102.0) is just shy of Collins' (101.2) but is significantly better than that of Nurkic (108.2), Jake Layman (109.6), Al-Farouq Aminu (109.8) and Moe Harkless (113.3).
Leonard, incidentally, has a chance to hit the 50/40/90 line (field-goal percentage/3-point percentage/free-throw percentage) for the second time in his career. The 7-1 center/forward is shooting .536 from the field, .529 from 3-point range and .889 (16 for 18) from the line.
• Harkless is being eased back into action after missing 12 games with a knee injury. The veteran small forward started against the Clippers, collecting four points and one rebound in 17 minutes. Harkless, who has played in the last three games, is on a restriction of no more than 20 minutes.
"I felt pretty good out there moving around," said Harkless, who started 37 games at small forward a year ago. "I'll get a better idea once we start to increase the minutes, but I feel good. I feel a lot better than when I tried to play a month ago.
"We've talked about maybe pushing the minutes restriction up after a couple more games. It's pretty hard to play this way (with limited minutes). I want to drop (the restriction) as soon as we can."
• A year ago, pundits marveled at how tight the West race was, with just a few games separating teams three through nine (after Golden State and Houston) in the standings. This season, it's even more of a maze, with seven teams within two games and 14 teams within 4 1/2 games of the conference-leading Clippers (13-6). The Blazers exited Sunday night a game and a half back of the Clippers.
"I don't see that changing much throughout the year," Stotts said. "There's so much parity when you look at teams that weren't predicted to be that strong. Sacramento is playing terrific basketball. After a slow start, Dallas is playing well. Every night is going to be a challenge in the West. If you start watching the standings now, it will drive you crazy."
Added Rivers: "When you play in the West, you never feel you have a night where you can take a breather. You have to beat each other's brains out, and then you have another one the next night."