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Trail Blazers Loss to Boston Celtics Underlines Three Season-Long Issues

Photo by: Steve Dykes/AP Photo

By Matthew Zimmer

Stop me if you’ve seen this before: Portland starts out hot, takes a decent lead, loses the lead, trails in the fourth quarter, makes a run in the fourth to tie and/or take the lead. Then, they win (or lose).

You probably tried stopping me a few times in there. Two weeks ago, The Athletic’s Seth Partnow put together a list of clutch time performances for teams. Obviously, we know Damian Lillard pretty much defines clutch time, but what the statistic “clutch time”?

Defined on NBA.com as a game with at least one possession where the score margin was five points or less in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.

Partnow says that about 50 percent of NBA games have “at least some ‘clutch’ time.” Again, that doesn’t mean that 50 percent of games end up with a buzzer beater, just that there was at least one possession where the score was within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.

So, even if a team scores a bucket down six with 4:58, and now they’re down four with 4:57 to go, that game had “some clutch time”. Confused? Sorry, we’re moving on.

As of Partnow’s article (March 30), Portland had played in 28 games in clutch time, and they won 21 (so 75 percent).

Since the article, the Trail Blazers have played in eight games but only one more game with some clutch time (Tuesday night), which you should know by now they lost to Boston. So, that lowers their record to 21-8 in clutch time games (72.4 win percentage).

I’m sure you’re wondering how Portland’s success in clutch time is a “season-long issue” like the headline says, well “clutch time” isn’t the problem. I just wanted to show you they’re pretty good in clutch time before hurting you with the reality of the situation.

The concerning “season-long” issues include their record against plus-.500 teams, defensive efficiency and third quarter trends.

Record Against Good Teams

Portland is awful against teams above .500. You should already know that because we did a post about the Blazers struggles against Western Conference teams above .500.

Overall, Portland is 8-16 against teams above .500, according to Clutchpoints.com.

In case you’re trying to figure out how good the Trail Blazers are against below .500 teams, it’s 23-7.

The simplest way to look at this is Portland will probably be knocked out in the opening round of the postseason yet again.

Defensive Efficiency

Portland is 29th in defensive efficiency, aka second worst, only ahead of the Sacramento Kings. In case you’ve heard defensive efficiency before but don’t know what it means, here’s the definition.

The number of points a team gives up per 100 possessions.

Formula: 100*(Points Allowed/Possessions)

The Blazers have a defensive efficiency of 1.131, via Teamrankings.com. Again, that’s 29th, the top team is the LA Lakers and their number is 1.027.

On the flip side, Portland is seventh in offensive efficiency at 1.129.

Hopefully as Jusuf Nurkić gets more in game shape, the Blazers defense will also get better. That’s a pretty big “if” though.

Third Quarter Issues

If you’ve followed the Trail Blazers closely at all, you know the team really doesn’t do well in the third quarter. I was surprised to learn that the Blazers aren’t outscored that much in the third quarter (overall).

Portland scores 27.9 points, while they give up 28.3 points in the third quarter per game, according to Hoopstats.com.

Now, that 0.5 points per game may not seem like a lot, but look a little deeper.

Hoop Stats also shows the Blazers record when they lead or trail after the third quarter.

Portland is a staggering 20-3 when leading through the first three quarters. However, they’re almost equally as bad when trailing after the third, 9-19. The issue is even more drastic on the road.

The Trail Blazers are 11-0 when leading through three on the road, but they’re also 3-10 when down entering the fourth. At home, Portland is 9-3 when leading to start the final frame and 6-9 when trailing.

So, while it’s not a guarantee that they’ll lose when behind after three — thanks to Damian Lillard and clutch time play — the Blazers are still more likely to lose if they’re trailing entering the fourth quarter.

The Verdict

Right now, Portland isn’t playing well on defense, but they’re starting to gel on offense.

Like I said before, Jusuf Nurkić is still getting into the swing of things, and he’s on a minutes restriction. Norman Powell is averaging 16.9 points in April (7 games), and 16.7 points since joining Portland (10 games).

Carmelo Anthony hasn’t been consistent. I mean, look at his last two games; Sunday against Miami he scored zero points (0/4), then on Tuesday he went off for 25 points (10/15) against Boston. However, he’s going to really factor into the Blazers success or failure.

Damian Lillard has dropped off a little bit after carrying the team while CJ McCollum and Nurkić were injured. That is to be expected, but if Portland is going to succeed Lillard might need to play like an MVP again.

The problems continue to rear their ugly heads at the worst moments: against good teams in the NBA. If the Trail Blazers are going to make any kind of run in the postseason, they need to gel on defense sooner than later.

As we sit today (April 14, 2021), Portland stands at 31-23 overall and sixth in the West. However, they’re just 1.5 games ahead of Dallas for seventh, which you definitely don’t want to be this year.

In case you forgot, the NBA instituted a play-in tournament for teams in the 7-10 seeds.

How that will work is the No. 7 and No. 8 teams will play each other, the winner gets the No. 7 seed. Then, the loser will play the winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 seed. Finally, the winner of that game gets the No. 8 seed.

So, in case you’re still confused, for simplicity’s sake let’s just use the teams in those seeds right now in the “if the season ended today” example.

Dallas (7) would face Memphis (8) and San Antonio (9) would face Golden State (10). Let’s say Dallas and San Antonio win their respective games.

So, Dallas would be in as the No. 7 seed, while Memphis and San Antonio would play, and the winner gets the No. 8 seed. Got it? Okay, good. Back to the Blazers.

Portland is 2.5 games behind the shorthanded LA Lakers for fifth and three games behind Denver for fourth. If Jamal Murray’s torn ACL hurts Denver as much as I think it should, Portland could jump up at least one spot.

There are only 18 games left in the Trail Blazers regular season. Three games is a lot to make up, especially because 13 of those 18 are against teams above .500 and two are against San Antonio who is literally .500 (26-26) right now.

The only three teams Portland will play who sit below .500 are Indiana (25-28), Cleveland 19-34) and Houston (14-40).

If the Western Conference standings don’t change, the Blazers will face the LA Clippers in First Round. Portland is 0-2 against the Clips with one more game to play against them (this Sunday, April 18).

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