Blazers Beat: Fewer than 20 games remain, and can Portland beat good teams?
What's ahead: After a Tuesday game with Boston, the Trail Blazers, 31-22 entering the Boston game, take to the road for games at San Antonio (5:30 p.m. Friday) and Charlotte (4 p.m. Sunday, a game shifted from the first half, an above .500 team). After that, it'll be tough home games against the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver and Memphis (two games) — all teams above .500 entering Monday, April 12.
What's behind: Portland's struggles against winning teams continued, and Damian Lillard, facing focused defenses, had two of his lowest-scoring games of the season.
The Clippers scored a Portland-opponent record 47 points in the first quarter, and then controlled the game in the second half to beat the visiting Blazers 133-116 on April 6. Paul George had 36 points and Kawhi Leonard 29. Norman Powell had 32 points; Lillard had 11 points in 38 minutes, after going for 16 points in 25 minutes in the previous game.
"I thought the first 16 minutes of the game was, frankly, a little embarrassing," coach Terry Stotts said.
Utah used a 40-13 run in the third quarter to beat visiting Portland 122-103 April 8. Donovan Mitchell had 37 points and Rudy Gobert had 18 points and 20 rebounds. Lillard had 23 points.
The Blazers beat the team with the Eastern Conference's worst record, Detroit, for a second time, 118-103 on April 10 at Moda Center, as Lillard had 27 points and CJ McCollum 26 — and Enes Kanter set a Blazer record with 30 rebounds to go along with 24 points.
Portland had beaten Miami recently when the Heat played without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. The two Heat players returned and helped Miami beat the Blazers 107-98 April 11 at Moda Center. Bam Adebayo had 22 points and Butler 20 and the Heat forced 17 turnovers and had a 28-7 advantage on points off turnover. Lillard had only 12 points in 37 minutes and his three field goals came on 3-pointers.
Playing winners: Entering Tuesday's game, the Trail Blazers had a 7-15 record when playing teams above .500, and 24-7 against teams below .500. (the Heat were under .500 when the Blazers played them in Miami).
The Los Angeles Lakers remained the only team ahead of Portland in the Western Conference that it has beaten this season.
Stotts and Lillard each addressed the issue last week.
"There's obviously a gap and we need to close the gap between now and the playoffs," Stotts said, of the Blazers and top Western Conference teams, "and that'll be a challenge."
"It's one of the best years of winning games we're supposed to win," Lillard said. "When we play against top-level teams, we don't play well, we get put away. And, it's not like a small sample size.
"When you play against better teams, you have to have a certain level of focus, you have to be sharp physically and mentally, you have to be present and ready to go. We just haven't shown that we're that level of a team. We're capable of that. When you get on the floor you have to do it. … For us, the first step is acknowledging that's the truth, and being sharper, locked in and taking it to heart. We have to have something to prove, have some pride about those games. That's the start."
Of the 19 opponents from Tuesday on, 14 currently have winning records.
Rotation issue?: A veteran reporter of the Trail Blazers, Jason Quick of The Athletic, pressed Stotts on defensive issues last week, asking how the coach justifies playing Kanter and Carmelo Anthony on the second unit — neither are known for their defense — and taking defensive-minded Derrick Jones Jr. out of the starting lineup to play Powell with Lillard and McCollum in a three-guard lineup.
Stotts' answers: He looks for a "net positive" with Kanter and Anthony playing together, meaning their offense outdoes their defense, and the Blazers ranked 29th in defense before Powell went into the starting lineup and Jones came off the bench, and they still rank 29th.
New player: The Blazers have added forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, via a 10-day contract.
He played five seasons with the Brooklyn Nets, averaging 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds. Interestingly, the Blazers drafted him with the 23rd pick in 2015, but traded his rights and guard Steve Blake to Brooklyn for Mason Plumlee and the draft rights to Pat Connaughton.
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