PORTLAND, Ore. — How bad have things gotten for the Trail Blazers? Losers of five straight and 10 of its past 13, Portland has dropped a full two games behind the Dallas Mavericks in the loss column for the sixth spot in the playoff race, the final spot that guarantees safety from the play-in tournament.
The Blazers, currently in seventh place, lead the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies by just half a game and the ninth-place Spurs and 10th-place Warriors by just 1.5 games.
The schedule doesn't do Portland any favors, either. The Blazers have 12 games left in the regular season and according to Tankathon, it's the sixth-hardest remaining schedule in the NBA. Nine of Portland's remaining 12 games are against teams with a record of .500 or better.
The team's star player, Damian Lillard, puts the blame on himself. Through the first 40 games of the season, Lillard was averaging 30.6 points and shooting 45.6% from the field and 38.9% from 3. But since March 21, his averages have plummeted to 22.6 points on 37.1% shooting from the field and 32.6% from 3. He's sat out four games during that stretch while battling injuries to his abdomen, both knees, his right hamstring and his right hand.
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After Sunday's 120-113 loss to the Grizzlies, The Athletic's Jason Quick asked Lillard to describe how he's playing and whether he feels like his body will allow him to play at his regular level.
"The only thing I can do is look in the mirror at myself and evaluate myself, and I'm just not playing well enough," Lillard said. "I don't think it's worthy of going into what goes into it, but I'm on the floor. I'm just not playing well enough. I know that our team success is parallel to me being better and I just haven't played well enough.
"I'm on the floor. That's the best way for me to put it. That's what gives our team the best chance to win. And I'm doing all the things to allow myself to be on the floor. I just got to be better, man."
Nurkic looks better
There have been bright spots amid the team's slump. One has been the recent play of Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers increased his minutes restriction to the high-20s last week and he's taking advantage of the extra time. In his past two games, Nurkic has averaged 21 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, 1.5 blocks and a steal per game. It's the best Nurkic has looked since the bubble in Orlando at the end of last season.
Since Nurkic returned on March 26, the starting lineup of Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Nurkic has been excellent in 171 minutes together, outscoring teams by 13.6 points per 100 possessions with a good offense (114.4 points per 100 possessions) and an elite defense (103.5 points per 100 possessions). That same lineup with Kanter replacing Nurkic has also been effective, with a +22.4 net rating, an offensive rating of 129.3 and defensive rating of 107 in 72 minutes.
The biggest problem for the Blazers of late is that they can't close out games. Despite the losses, Portland has been competitive in its past seven games, all against teams with a record of .500 or better. In those seven games, Portland has been outscored by a total of 20 points while playing four games that were decided by one point and one game that was decided by two. The Blazers went 1-4 in those games.
Through the first 40 games of the season, Portland was 18-6 in clutch games (games within 5 points in the final 5 minutes) and shot 48.2% from the field and 41.6% from 3 in clutch minutes, a trend which helped them win more than their point differential projected they should. But since March 21, when Lillard's slump started, Portland is 4-6 in clutch games and shooting 43.6% from the field and 19.4% from 3 in clutch minutes.
The main difference has been Lillard. From the start of the season through March 20, Lillard led the league in clutch points with 128 and shot 58.7% from the field and 48.5% from 3 in those minutes. Since March 21, he ranks 30th in the NBA with 20 clutch points and is shooting 23.8% from the field and 9.1% from 3 in those minutes.
'Never know when it's going to turn'
It's not too late for Portland to turn its season around. But like Lillard said, he has to be better. In response to a question from KOIN sports reporter AJ McCord after Sunday night's game, Lillard said his message to the team has been to stay ready, because he believes their fortunes are going to turn.
"You never know when it's going to turn," Lillard said. "I'm not saying that just to be saying the right thing. While you're in the middle of it, the easy thing to do is go into a major panic and feel like nothing can be fixed, when you just really never know when it's going to click or when you're going to come out of it and turn the corner. You've got to make sure you keep your mind right and make sure you're strong enough in your heart and your mind to deal with whatever comes with those hard times. That's been my message. We got to stay with it."
NBA power rankings
Here's a look at where the Blazers landed in this week's NBA power rankings:
ESPN: Blazers rank 12 (down 2)
What they wrote: The Blazers have lost five straight and eight of 10. They've slipped into the play-in spot, now two games behind the Mavericks in the loss column. Diagnosing the Blazers is complicated, but Damian Lillard summarized it this way after Sunday's loss to Memphis: "I'm not playing well enough. I'm on the floor because that gives our team the best chance to win, and I've got to be better." — Royce Young
The Athletic: Blazers rank 16 (down 2)
What they wrote: Probably should have dropped Portland more than just a couple spots with how bad this week was. The Blazers have been dealing with some injuries, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt a little here. They need to bounce back immediately. — Zach Harper
NBA.com: Blazers rank 16 (down 3)
What they wrote: Given how poorly they defend, how much they were depending on clutch shooting, and how (relatively) easy their schedule had been through the first few days of April, the Blazers had a pretty thin margin for error for a team that was 11 games over .500. And the tables (except the defense one) have turned as they’ve lost nine of their last 11 games to fall out of the top six in the West. They haven’t lost to any bad teams and each of the Blazers’ four games last week were within three points in the final minute. Damian Lillard missed the first game, but shot 0-for-5 on clutch 3s over the other three. CJ McCollum missed a game-winning jumper against the Clippers, Norman Powell missed a game-winning runner against the Nuggets, and Jusuf Nurkic missed a point-blank, reverse layup to take the lead against the Grizzlies. Clutch is fleeting. With just a game and a half separating them from the 10th-place Warriors, the Blazers are in danger of slipping further down the standings. Their visit to Indiana on Tuesday is the start of a six-game trip and a stretch of 11 games (with four back-to-backs) in 17 days. They’ll have a rest disadvantage (playing the second game of a back-to-back against a rested opponent) for their final meeting with the Grizzlies on Wednesday. — John Schuhmann
CBS Sports: Blazers rank 19 (down 3)
What they wrote: This was an excruciating week for Portland, losing three games by a total of four points before falling to the Grizzlies on Sunday to bring the losing streak to five games. It's been a rough stretch for the Blazers, who are now tied with the No. 8 Grizzlies in the loss column and are just a game and a half ahead of the No. 10 Warriors in the West. Damian Lillard shot just 29 percent from 3-point range in three games this week after returning from a hamstring injury, while Jusuf Nurkic put up 16.7 points, 14.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in three games. — Colin Ward-Henninger
The Ringer: Blazers rank 19 (down 10)
What they wrote: Portland has lost five games in a row and is 6-10 since acquiring Norman Powell on deadline day. On the season, the Blazers have the second-worst defensive rating—only the Kings rank worse. Portland has had plenty of memorable moments as it’s made seven consecutive playoff appearances, but today, I feel bad for Blazers fans. Expectations were high and the team has done nothing but underwhelm. Most of all, I feel bad for Damian Lillard. An all-time talent like him deserves better during a prime season of his career. Team building isn’t easy. The Blazers have been good enough to at least make the playoffs in the loaded West. But looking at the team now, the Blazers need more players who can get on-ball stops and a rim protector who’s feared by opponents. Players who can set strong screens and make plays off the dribble are hard to find, but the Blazers haven’t been able to find one who can serve as an outlet for Dame when he gets trapped in the pick-and-roll. Head coach Terry Stotts also needs to be better at tweaking the offensive system on the fly. Fans understandably point the finger at coaching, but serious change across the roster is needed. — Kevin O'Connor