You want fireworks. The team goes away for two weeks and returns to open a six game home stand and you want a Saturday night at the Rose Garden. You want rejuvenated players to fly up and down the court and bask in the sort of fervor they were never going to find in Indianapolis or Charlotte. Sometimes what you get, though, is 48 weary minutes in a losing battle to fend off the mirthless inevitability of an NBA schedule.
Before last night’s game, Terry Stotts told reporters tat the Blazers hadn’t been able to have an “energetic” practice all week; afterward, Damian Lillard admitted the game felt “dead” while LaMarcus Aldridge confessed to having never found his legs. Nic Batum shuffled around in a towel, one hand in the small of his back, and the newly injured Wes Matthews didn’t appear. Joel Freeland, who played all of 9 minutes, sat with an Ace bandage wrapped around his torso to hold an ice pack on his back with a wry look on his face.
It was always going to come to this for the Blazers, whose depth on the best of days is nearly a punchline. But last night—with Victor Claver and Will Barton’s assignment to Boise compounding the effects of Batum and Matthews’ injuries—it felt like everybody in the building was looking at the exit from the jump.
On the court, the Blazers started slothfully and were unable to fully recover with a third quarter run. They had 9 turnovers in the first frame as Batum toed gingerly around and no player but JJ Hickson seemed capable of finding a rhythm. Luke Babbitt provided some brief first-half excitement with back-to-back threes and a few precious minutes leading all players in scoring, but pretty much no matter the competition, a team does not ride JJ Hickson and Luke Babbitt to victory.
The putative stars of the game for Sacramento were John Salmons and DeMarcus Cousins, though it would’ve been impossible to tell without a box score. If you told me I watched DeMarcus Cousins post 19 points and 12 rebounds while barely jogging inside the three-point arc on most plays, I would’ve thought you were either lying or nearly blind. But he did, and Travis Outlaw got a few licks in during a desultory fourth quarter that put the game away for good.
It’s important to note that this game was not a harbinger. Batum and Matthews may miss some games—Batum expressed doubts about his status for the upcoming Toronto game, and Matthews’ injury can linger—but this didn’t expose anything new or troubling about the team. The Blazers may have overperformed early to reach 5-5 but they’ve still beaten just one team that has a winning record and haven’t strung together consecutive games suggesting they’re consistently able to overcome the problems inherent to the roster.
No, this was just the sort of night that you get in early December after the team has played 7 games in 11 days. On its own, it’s not a referendum on character or a gut-check or any of those old clichés, but if these nights keep piling up, I suspect the team will start to run a deficit of good will with fans and local media. This is the team we expected to have, but the reality of the next four months will be an interesting litmus for where the team stands with Portland right now. Because understandable and predictable as they are, game’s like last night’s just aren’t all that fun.