After dropping their sixth straight loss, this one at home to the worst team in the Western conference, the Blazers are uncharacteristically out of lockstep. “We’re running out of time,” said Damian Lillard after the game. “Nothing is slipping away,” Terry Stotts told reporters.
It’s dangerous to read too much into canned post-loss quotes, but these Blazers have built their season on a foundation of charismatic, willful ignorance. They have long been swimming against the tide of perception and metric analysis to churn out the sort of improbable win they couldn’t quite come up with Tuesday night. A huge part of this has been the team’s insistence on irrational confidence, an unearned equipoise that has allowed the team to take for granted what nobody else even thought possible. As the realities of their season start to take mathematical form, however, that sense of unity may be threatened.
Tonight’s game was the sort of effort that has served as the anchor on any expectations for the season. The Blazers ran up a twelve point deficit in the game’s opening minutes and let the Suns shoot better than 60% from the field in the first half. Goran Dragic had ten of his career-high eighteen assists in the first quarter, and it’s possible that a Phoenix big man was not boxed out until sometime early in the third quarter. This felt like a few other Blazers losses that have served as inflection points, except with the added grimness of looming schedule inevitability.
Before the game, the mood was predictably rested and energetic in the arena. Nic Batum showed off a Cancun sunburn, and Terry Stotts and I talked about the difference in physicality between different eras in the league. After the game, the mood was as subdued as it has been all season. It was as pronounced an emotional whiplash as I’ve experienced, and Stotts’ postgame presser was telling. As usual, the coach was professionally euphemistic and diplomatic in his responses, but his tone and face belied the text of his remarks. He seemed unusually worn out, even paused for a moment to lightly admonish a reporter for a phone noise during the conference. There was a sense of fraying and weariness, but even still, he stuck to the script that has served the team so well.
Nicolas Batum, typically one of the more candid and secure post-game interviews gave a stone-faced “no” when asked if the playoffs were slipping away. Unexplained, monosyllabic answers aren’t the norm for Nic, and it was clear that he was protesting too much, treating the very idea as a transgression even as the Blazers fell four games below .500 and another game behind Houston for the 8 seed.
Lillard alone among those I listened to acknowledged the reality: “We need to be going uphill, and right now we’re falling more games below .500. With 25 wins, we need to start winning some games now.” I don’t put too much stock in the difference between this response and Batum’s or Stotts’, except to say that the Blazers risk a fractious lame-duck portion of the season as the losses pile up.
Perhaps the greatest thing the Blazers’ wins have afforded them is protection. Protection from a media that presses a little harder on individual players when the losses blend together. Protection from acknowledging the serious talent deficiencies of the roster. I’m not being glib; I really believe that for a young team in the early stages of an organizational cycle, there is an incalculable value to the security that comes from winning. You feel capable, and your faith in your ability to prepare is strengthened with every win. But if the Blazers can’t right themselves quickly, the question of a playoff chase will quickly become moot as they struggle to keep the team from fissuring in the absence of belief. Because whether the Blazers’ hopes this season have been rational or not, they have been hopes, and they’re in danger of being rudely dashed.