Time to worry about the Trail Blazers?
When is it time to get concerned about the Trail Blazers?
The early schedule has been difficult, key players have been injured and there have been several new faces to assimilate into the pack.
But Portland was 4-8 after a 114-106 loss to Toronto on Wednesday night at Moda Center, with the prospects of a six-game, 10-day road trip on the horizon.
This is what coach Terry Stotts said before the Blazers fell to the Raptors for their sixth defeat in seven games, when asked how he felt about where his team is:
"We're not where we want to be. The losses at Golden State and Sacramento took a toll. Those two teams were undermanned and we didn't come up with wins, and that changes the outlook of where we are. We've played a lot of close games; we've played some good teams competitively. I'd say we're a middle-of-the-road team right now, trying to find ourselves."
The path to success didn't become any more clear after the Raptors — missing starters Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby and sixth man Serge Ibaka due to injuries — torpedoed the Blazers after falling behind 14-2. With emerging forward Pascal Siakam (36 points) and heady point guard Fred VanVleet (30) leading the way, Toronto reeled in the Blazers, then singed them with 12-0 run to break a 94-94 tie.
It's a familiar refrain for the Blazers, who have the NBA's poorest fourth-quarter defensive rating. When the chips are down, the Blazers frequently are, too.
"Sometimes it's that we can't get a rebound," Portland point guard Damian Lillard said. "That's hurting us. We foul a lot. That's hurting us — (opponents) living at the foul line. And us not executing well enough at the offensive end with the game on the line. Those things equal losses."
So does Lillard scoring in single figures, which he did against Toronto for the first time in ages.
The four-time All-Star, who entered the game second in the league with a 32.5-point average, managed only nine points on 2-for-12 shooting. That snapped a franchise-record 230-game streak of double-figure scoring, the third-longest active streak in the NBA.
The last time Lillard failed to reach double figures? On Nov. 9, 2016, when he had eight points on 1-of-10 shooting in a 111-82 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
"(The Raptors) gave a lot of defensive attention to 'Dame,'" Stotts said. "Dame did a nice job of finding (teammates) on his penetration when he wasn't necessarily scoring."
Lillard had 10 assists, but he is not being paid $29.7 million this season to dish the rock.
The Raptors used some box-and-one, with VanVleet as the primary defender and getting plenty of help whenever Lillard attempted to drive.
"That's the fourth team in a row to come out denying me full-court (and using a) box-and-one," said Lillard, who hadn't scored fewer than 22 points in Portland's first 11 games. "I don't remember seeing that many box-and-ones in the NBA, but it made me play against a crowd.
"When I'm trying to get downhill and be aggressive, there would be four (defenders) in the paint. The right play is to kick the ball ahead or out, and that was the only option they gave me a lot of times."
Well, not four defenders. But often three, enough to make it very difficult for Lillard to get up a shot, let alone make one.
Backcourt mate CJ McCollum finished with 19 points on 8-for-18 shooting. McCollum said he, too, got bonus coverage from the Raptors.
"They did a great job of running the box-and-one and then the triangle-and-two," McCollum said. "They mix up their defenses and zone off the ball. There are a lot of bodies out there in your way.
"They started using box-and-one on Dame late in the first quarter, then ran the box-and-one on me in the second quarter. Through almost the entire second half they went to a triangle-and-two. Out of my 36 minutes, they probably used it in 20 of them."
Box-and-one means playing man-to-man defense on one player and a four-man zone. Triangle-and-two means matching up man-to-man on two players — in this case, it would be Lillard and McCollum — with a three-man zone.
To the naked eye, it appeared Toronto was going mostly man-to-man with plenty of help from anyone in the area any time Lillard got the ball. The Raptors (8-3) had used the same ploy in their last two games, holding the Los Angeles' Lakers LeBron James to 13 points and the Clippers' Kawhi Leonard to 12.
"We throw two or three guys at (the opponent's star)," VanVleet said. "We just want to make them pass and make somebody else make the shots. Rodney Hood came in and made some big shots, but overall, we didn't want to let Dame shoot."
Hood, coming back after missing the previous two games with back spasms, scored 25 points on 9-for-15 shooting, knocking down 5 of 10 from beyond the arc. That wasn't enough to offset the lack of the usual point production of Lillard.
"You know you're rolling the dice a little bit with these defensive schemes," Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. "But if you get the work on the primary player and then get the rest of the guys to do what they're supposed to do in help situations, you can make it difficult on them. We've rolled the dice on these guys, and it turned out pretty good."
Stotts felt brave enough to shake up the starting lineup, inserting 6-6 rookie Nassir Little as power forward to defend Siakam, who came in ranked eighth in the NBA in scoring at 26.3 points per game. Little, who had seven points and five rebounds in 23 minutes, held the 6-9 Siakam to five points in the first quarter. But the Raptors' best player got untracked for 24 points in the second half.
"We felt it was worth taking a look at," Stotts said. "It was a tough matchup for a rookie, but I wanted to see what he could do against Siakam, and he had a really good game. He held his own with Siakam defensively. He brought a lot of energy, played hard."
The Blazers knew they were looking at a rough first month of the season, with 13 of 18 games on the road. They figured if they could escape with a winning record — even 10-8 — they would be in good shape. To hit that mark, they would have to sweep a six-game trip that begins Saturday at San Antonio, followed by visits to Houston, New Orleans and Milwaukee.
"It's a long road trip, and we're going to be tested, but it's going to be good for us," McCollum said.
He didn't elaborate, but it will be good only if the Blazers can get a few wins. A 4-2 trip would make everyone feel a lot better.
When Stotts was asked postgame what is giving him hope right now, he answered, "We've been competitive. We just haven't closed out games. ... our test right now is winning games in the fourth quarter."
But the Blazers made clear before the season that the NBA championship was their goal. Being competitive should be the goal of Memphis or Atlanta or New York.
The shoulder injury to power forward Zach Collins was a blow, but the sky is not falling. Center Jusuf Nurkic will return at some point. The new players will assimilate with the returnees, and with the talent on hand, the Blazers should be able to get things rolling at some point.
More opponents will use the defensive blueprint set forth by Toronto. The Blazers must figure out how to exploit the tactic.
Said Lillard: "When teams are giving me that type of attention, it's my job to make the right play and get the ball to the next guy, so he can make the shot or to make the play that is going to make them pay for having two guys on me. The more we make them pay, the more they'll realize it's not beneficial and they'll have to back off. But when we're not attacking or successful at a high rate, they're going to feel comfortable doing it. They just get more aggressive as the game goes on."
Lillard admitted he is frustrated, but he believes the Blazers will work through this funk.
"It's early in the season," he said. "There are a lot of games to be played. I'm optimistic for that reason."
But few figured the Blazers to be 4-8 and already 5 1/2 games behind the Western Conference-leading Lakers (9-2).
"It's not a great feeling, but it's not the end of the world," Lillard said. "This is a tough position to be in, especially with our expectations are much higher. Every season has bad stretches and good stretches. We always find a way to turn it around. That's why I'm able to keep a level head and still be confident that we can find our way."
Hood feels much the same way.
"Nobody's in the playoffs right now," he said. "I don't care if they're No. 1 in the league or in the West, Everybody's still fighting, figuring out everything. By next month, we could be up there at the top. We just have to continue to stay positive and get better.
"If we don't get better, we'll continue to go like this. If we get better, we'll win some of these games and our record will show that. We just have to keep our morale up."
NOTES — The Blazers attempted a franchise-record 48 3-point shots Wednesday night, making 17 (.354). The previous mark was 46 in an overtime game against Dallas in 2016. Asked if 48 was a good number of 38-point attempts, Stotts said, "That's great. Three weeks ago, everyone was asking me if we were taking enough 3's. We had some really good looks. So if they're good 3's, take them." ... McCollum noted that the Blazers have "played down to our competition in some games." He didn't specify which ones, but certainly losses at Golden State and Sacramento qualify. ... Hood said his back was "pretty sore" after Wednesday's game. "It felt good once I got going up and down a couple of times," he said. "It's something I'm going to have to deal with. I'll continue to get treatment and hopefully by the road trip it will be all the way back to normal." ... Three Blazers newcomers are not shooting well: Kent Bazemore (.358 from the field and .340 from beyond the arc), Mario Hezonja (.319, .320) and Anthony Tolliver (.244, .242).
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