Portland Trail Blazers
As the Portland Trail Blazers fled the visiting locker room at Oracle Arena Monday night, there was a simple sentiment lingering in the aftermath of their failed fourth-quarter rally against the Golden State Warriors. Get one win and see where things go from there.
“We’re going through … an identity crisis,” CJ McCollum said. “We’ve got a lot of injuries right now. Guys are playing different roles, (moving) in-and-out of the rotation. I think once you start winning again, the game becomes easier and it becomes more fun.”
So one win might be enough to snap the Blazers out of their funk?
“Yeah,” McCollum said, exhaling. “That would be nice. That would be nice.”
It remains to be seen if the cure to the Blazers’ myriad issues is truly that simple, but at this point, anything would help. The Blazers’ 111-104 loss to the Warriors was their fifth in a row, a surprising stretch that has dropped them to 13-13 on the season and prompted a restless fan base to grow uneasy.
Injuries to center Jusuf Nurkic (right ankle) and Moe Harkless (left quad) — who have missed the last two games — haven’t helped. But even when the Blazers were at full-strength, they were infuriatingly inconsistent, a trait that seems to be part of their DNA.
Losing streaks aside, there’s no shame in dropping consecutive games to the Houston Rockets (21-4) and Warriors (22-6), the hottest teams in the NBA who have won a combined 17 games in a row and feature the best records in the Western Conference. If anything, the Blazers left Oakland encouraged after going toe-to-toe with the Rockets for three-and-a-half quarters and finishing strong against the Warriors, against whom they outscored 29-18 in the fourth quarter to rally from a 24-point deficit and make things interesting down the stretch.
“We didn’t play defeated basketball,” Damian Lillard said. “Even though they got away from us a little bit, we never let that turn into us looking defeated or playing defeated. I thought we kept competing, we kept trusting each other, we made a lot of plays for each other and the shots didn’t go in. We still competed on the defensive end. We had our chance down the stretch, we just built too much of a hole to climb out of.”
Of course, the Warriors played without All-Stars Stephen Curry and Draymond Green and starter Zaza Pachulia, so the Blazers were facing a far less lethal version of the reigning NBA champions. And no matter how you sugarcoat things, the Blazers still feature the NBA’s second-longest current losing streak and an underperforming roster.
The good news is that the schedule eases a bit as the Blazers navigate the final four games of a five-game, eight-day trip. They visit the Miami Heat Wednesday and play a back-to-back against the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets, before ending with a matchup at the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Heat (13-13) are plodding along at the same pace as the Blazers and the Magic (11-17) and Hornets (10-16) have been stalled by injuries.
If there ever was a time to break out of a funk — to get that one win — it’s now.
COLLINS GETS CHANCE
Injuries to Nurkic and Harkless have created a spot in the rotation for Zach Collins and the 7-foot rookie big man has offered a glimpse of why the Blazers traded for him on draft night.
Over the last two games, Collins has played at least 19 minutes — including a career-high 25 against the Warriors — and given a little bit of everything, recording 14 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks, while making 6 of 14 shots, against the best teams in the Western Conference.
He was an integral part of the Blazers’ comeback bid against Golden State, playing nearly 10 minutes in the fourth quarter to help the Blazers claw back to within single digits. Collins opened the quarter with a steal, nailed a turnaround jumper on the other end, and seemed to be everywhere in the final period, chasing down rebounds (four), snatching steals (two) and creating for teammates (two assists). When he finished an alley-oop layup off a pass from Lillard with 2:56 left, the Blazers trailed 109-100 and had a fighter’s chance.
But 41 seconds later, Collins was whistled for an illegal screen, collecting his sixth foul and ending his night prematurely. He finished with nine points, seven rebounds, three steals and two assists — all career highs — while playing solid defense.
“I thought he played well,” McCollum said. “He was aggressive. He got the rookie treatment on a lot of screens that the rest of the league sets every night. But besides that, I think he rebounded the ball well. He wasn’t afraid and he made some good plays for us.”
Lillard said he’s been impressed with the confidence of a player who had only seen the floor a combined 13 minutes in 15 games before facing the Rockets.
“You’re talking about a rookie that hasn’t played a lot up until recently and he’s having to learn a lot of things on the floor because he hasn’t seen a lot of action,” Lillard said. “He’s having to listen to (Evan Turner), listen to me, listen to CJ. So many guys are telling him different things that he needs to do. And he’s taking it all on the fly. He’s doing a good job, he’s being assertive and aggressive. And I think that’s the best thing about it — he’s still able to be productive and kind of do what everybody’s asking him to do at the same time.”
MCCOLLUM EASES OUT OF SLUMP
After laboring through a four-game shooting slump, McCollum is starting to rediscover his jumper.
Heading into the loss to the Rockets, McCollum had made just 25 of 73 field goals (34 percent), including 5 of 20 three-pointers (25 percent), during an ice-cold four-game stretch. But he went 11 of 21 from the field against the Rockets, then 8 of 14 against the Warriors, easing out of his slump.
His three-point stroke remains off — he’s 3 of 11 from long-range the last two games — but he’s finally snapping out of his funk.
“I feel all right,” he said. “Even when I wasn’t shooting well, I felt all right. The ball just wasn’t going in.”v