After an 18-point loss against the Milwaukee Bucks last Friday, Damian Lillard spoke plainly about the Portland Trail Blazers' season. "I think it's been one of our best years since I've been here of going in and winning the games that we feel like we're supposed to win, home and on the road," Lillard said on Zoom. "But against the teams that are the top teams, we haven't fared well."
The Oklahoma City Thunder would drive their tank to Portland the next day, and then the Blazers would visit two contenders: the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz. He said he was excited about the "test" that awaited them.
If the beginning of April was indeed a test, then Portland would like a redo. After annihilating the Thunder by a score of 133-85, the Blazers lost 133-116 to the Clippers on Tuesday and 122-103 to the Jazz on Thursday. Los Angeles set a franchise record with 47 first-quarter points, and Utah outscored Portland 40-19 in the third quarter, including a 25-4 run that took only six minutes. Six days after the Bucks loss, Lillard repeated himself.
"When we play against the top-level teams, we don't play well," he said. "We get put away. At Phoenix we got put away, tonight we got put away, at Denver we got put away. Milwaukee at home, got put away. Against the Clippers, got put away. It's not like it's a small sample size. It's what happens."
The Blazers' season began with a 20-point loss at home to the same Jazz team that ran circles around them in the second half. Five days later they beat the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, which remains their only victory against any of the five teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. The Clippers beat them by 23 points a couple of days later. They have a 32-point loss to the Suns, a 28-point loss to the Bucks and a 20-point loss to the Jazz on their résumé.
"Those are the teams that we are trying to be next to," Lillard said. "We're trying to be in that same bubble of teams. And when those games have come, we just haven't shown that we're that level of a team. We're capable of it. All y'all know that I always say it, I'm the most optimistic, I'm the biggest believer. But it comes a time where when you get on the floor, you gotta do it."
The track record looks damning. The Blazers are 3-11 against the top eight teams in the league (by record and by net rating): the Jazz, Suns, Clippers, Bucks, Nuggets, Sixers, Nets and Lakers. And thanks to the website Cleaning The Glass, we can zoom in on what exactly is going wrong when they face high-level competition. In 17 games against teams with a top-10 net rating, the Blazers have been outscored by 11.2 points per 100 possessions (excluding garbage time and heaves), which ranks 24th in the league.
Portland has scored 117.9 points per 100 possessions this season, good for fifth in the league, per CTG. Against top-10 teams, that has dropped to 114.3 per 100. The much bigger issue, however, is that their dismal defense -- 117.9 per 100, which would be on pace to be the worst mark in NBA history if this year's Sacramento Kings were not slightly worse -- has fallen to an almost unimaginable level of futility against top-10 teams: 125.5 points per 100 possessions.
Dating back to the Blazers' string of clutch victories in the NBA bubble, they've pushed the limit of how far a team can get with an awful defense. Even after adding an elite off-ball defender in Robert Covington and a hyper-athletic, switchable forward in Derrick Jones Jr., they've relied on their offense -- and absolutely ridiculous efficiency in crunch time -- to carry them. Despite having a negative point differential, they're 30-21 on the season because they've outscored opponents by 32.7 points per 100 possessions when ahead or behind by five points or fewer in the final five minutes, per NBA.com. This is a credit to their late-game execution and to Lillard's renowned shotmaking, but it's irrelevant when they're down double-digits in the fourth quarter against a top-tier team.
Portland is so good offensively that it does not have to be great or even good on defense to compete with more balanced opponents. It just can't afford to be historically bad. A league-high 16 times this season, it has allowed more than 125 points per 100 possessions, per CTG. A league-high 10 times, it has allowed more than 130 per 100. A league-high four times, it has allowed more than 140 per 100. That last category includes a 132-92 loss at home against the Dallas Mavericks in March.
For much of this topsy-turvy season, the Blazers have been one of the many teams simply trying to eke out wins with a depleted roster. C.J. McCollum missed almost two months because of a broken foot. Jusuf Nurkic strained his calf while sidelined with a broken wrist, has been on a minutes restriction since he returned and missed Tuesday's game with knee inflammation. Zach Collins has not played a single minute. Portland is trying to integrate trade-deadline acquisition Norman Powell, but it is still playing Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter together. Terry Stotts' coaching staff needs to use its final 21 games to establish some continuity and find some lineups that can get stops.
Lillard said the Blazers need to "look in the mirror" and acknowledge the obvious. They have not been able to slow down the league's best teams. They knew they couldn't afford to let Utah pile up points in transition, but that's what happened throughout the dispiriting third-quarter run. Against an opponent like that, "you have to be consistent," Lillard said. "You gotta be able to sustain a certain level of focus and you gotta be sharp. Physically, mentally you gotta be present, you gotta be ready to go." These losses, in his view, give them something to prove.
This is the optimistic perspective, as it implies that Portland can reverse this troubling trend if it just locks in. With five weeks left in the season, though, the evidence suggests this team is not versatile enough, not physical enough and not connected enough defensively. Particularly against contenders, the Blazers have fouled far too often, given up a ton of corner 3s, not forced turnovers and not protected the rim. If these things don't change soon, there will be no reason to expect anything different in the playoffs.