The Blazers made it 4 straight losses tonight and 8 straight close games, dropping an ugly one to Cleveland that saw a couple forces working against the home team. The first of these, naturally, is regression to the mean; the Blazers’ well-chronicled success in close games and overtime was almost certainly never so much about the team as it was their luck. The second factor at work tonight, and the one dominating conversations here at the Rose Garden post-game, is fatigue.
The Blazers came out looking weary and uninterested in the first half. If not for the hot long-distance shooting of Nic Batum in the first quarter, the 53-36 halftime deficit would have likely been even more of an eyesore. The Blazers made their way back into the game with a little more second-half energy and a major fourth quarter offensive slump from Cleveland that saw the visitors post three points in the first six minutes of the final frame. Cleveland got little production outside of strong efforts from Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving, but in the end, the Blazers were unable to overcome what certainly looked like dead legs.
Perhaps the most damning evidence of serious fatigue was the performance of Damian Lillard, who carried an 0-4 line into the fourth quarter before finally connecting on 3 of 5 shots in that period. After the game, however, Terry Stotts and his players had different things to say about the potential of long minutes wearing the Blazers down.
When asked whether he could think of a reason the Blazers started flat, Stotts responded with a simple, curt “No.” Wes Matthews fell in line, trotting out a game “there’s no excuses” but unable to stop himself from conceding that Cleveland “looked like a fresher team.” Nic Batum, who is generally unhampered by machismo when discussing the realities of the NBA game, conceded that the Blazers were tired, but insisted that tiredness was not what kept them from winning.
I suspect over the next few days, Blazers fans will see various takes on this. Yes, the players and coaches had differing answers when asked about fatigue, but what this really boils down to is an exercise in ferreting out the most honest players. Terry Stotts is a smart coach, and goes to great lengths taking pressure off his players with the media; I’m positive that when he takes an imaginative look at the film from this game, it will occur to him that his starters played as if they’d logged 120 minutes each in the past week.
Season-long readers will know that I’m a bit obsessed with the taxing nature of the NBA schedule. For a first-time close observer, the toll the schedule takes on players’ bodies and minds defies the platitudes fans grow up hearing. The back-and-forth quotes that players and coaches will give on the issue of fatigue is not a symptom of them being out of sync with one another, it’s a symptom of an impossibly intense seven-month degradation of mental and physical resources.
Ask yourself what you would expect players and a coach to say when queried about being tired. If you’re like me, you would assume that about 60%, or a little more than half, of the people you asked would give a standard “no excuses” line. You’d expect the rest to concede that fatigue is a reality but not an insurmountable obstacle. Because the players understand they’re playing two games—the one on the court, and the one where they’re filling their roles as entertainers by dancing around the warrior archetype.
Of course the Blazers are tired. That’s not a swipe—I’m not accusing them of being the sort who tire easily, and I don’t truly believe that they’re too tired to win basketball games. Except on rare occasion, the Blazers are likely to be no more tired than their opponent. My point is that exhaustion is a truth in the NBA, a truth that has to be learned, and I’m sure that it’s difficult for a team with a new head coach and four rookies to learn it. Sure, there’s value in it, value in learning how to lean on one another, how to take care of your body, how to tweak your mechanics to account for tired muscles. But I doubt very much there’s any value in denying it.