In a roundabout way, Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups warned near the end of his team’s recent 4-2 trip that a downturn could be on the on the horizon.
Since then, the Blazers have gone 1-3 and suffered two close home losses, including a 118-113 defeat Saturday to the Utah Jazz (12-6).
More a week ago, when the Blazers were 9-4, Billups pointed out that they had won a couple of buzzer-beaters and other close games. A reversal of fortune would have led to losses and dramatically changed their record.
On Saturday, Billups reiterated that such games have a way of evening themselves over the course of the NBA season.
“It always does,” Billups said. “The season is so long and you’re going to have some go your way where you’re like, ‘Man, how did we win that game?’ And you’re going to have some where you go, ‘Man, we had a chance.’”
For that reason, Billups didn’t leave the Moda Center more added concern. Billups said the Blazers and Jazz entered Saturday’s game with first place in the West on the line. Yet, the difference between them and the ninth-place team was slim. The Blazers were tied with Memphis (10-6) for second place after Saturday night’s games. Meanwhile, the 10th-place Minnesota Timberwolves (8-8) were just three games back of Utah.
Had the Blazers not won buzzer-beaters at Phoenix and Miami earlier this season, they would be 8-8 and tied for 10th.
“We’ve had game-winners, we’ve won tough games, we’ve won road games, we’ve had a good start,10-6 with a tough schedule,” Lillard said. “We’ve played a lot of good teams.”
The Blazers have done so with their fair share of injuries, as well. And now, they must contend with another.
Damian Lillard left the loss to Utah in the third quarter with a right calf strain, his second such injury this season. The first one, which occurred Oct. 26 against Miami, caused him to miss five games.
Lillard said Saturday that he didn’t expect to miss as many games this time around. And while he expressed frustration about suffering another injury, he wasn’t overly pessimistic, noting that injuries happen around the league.
The Grizzlies, for instance, just lost Ja Morant to an ankle injury.
“I think what you what have to look at is that we’re not the only team dealing with this,” Lillard said. “There’s a lot of guys around the league who get banged up, missing game, and that’s part of it. Injuries happen.”
To weather the ups and downs, Billups said, the Blazers must continue refining the good they have displayed and repair the bad, such as poor starts and rampant turnovers.
“You’ve got to always kind of be playing your type of basketball,” Billups said. “You can’t get away from that for even a little bit.”
The Blazers appeared sluggish in all three of their recent home games, including Tuesday’s win over San Antonio and Thursday’s loss to Brooklyn.
The Blazers, Billups said, can combat that by playing with greater focus early in games.
“I just think that it’s very fragile,” Billups said. “It’s a very thin line as to if you want to be a really good team. There are things that you got to hold yourself accountable for every single night. I think we’re actually making a ton of progress in that. But we have some nights where it takes us too long.”
Rampant turnovers have compounded the team’s inconsistencies. The Blazers committed 18 against the Jazz, resulting in 28 points. The Blazers have allowed 19.9 points off turnovers per game, which ranks 25th in the NBA. Their 15.9 turnovers per game rank 22nd, but is improving. The Blazers committed just 10 turnovers against the Nets, 12 at Dallas on Nov. 12 and nine at New Orleans on Nov. 10. But with 17 against the Spurs and Saturday’s showing, it’s clear turnovers remain an issue.
“Some of them were just senseless turnovers that we could have easily avoided,” Josh Hart said. “We cut those down by two or three and cut down their points off turnovers by a couple and we win that game.”
Billups repeatedly has blamed turnovers on the team’s lack of familiarity. But Saturday, he also pointed to carelessness and failure to handle pressure defenses.
“There’s a lot of things to put into that,” Billups said. “But at the end of the day, we just have to be better regardless of what the problem or issue is. We’ve got to have a solution.”
Anfernee Simons said that many of the turnovers are the product of unselfishness.
“The unforced turnovers I think we need to fix a little bit,” he said. “We’re going to get better as we keep going along and get to know each other a little bit more. At least we’re out there trying to make the right plays and looking for each other. So, I think that’s the positive behind it.”
Following the Bucks on Monday, the Blazers play at Cleveland (9-6), at New York (8-8) and at the Nets (7-9). If the Blazers’ current issues persist — and Lillard misses a couple of games — they could easily return home a few notches down in the West standings.
Lillard views this moment as a chance for the Blazers to show they can overcome tough times. There’s no reason, Lillard said, for the team, or fans, to make too much out of the past few games.
“It’s not that deep,” he said. “I think you’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Stay true to it. Keep believing. Stay together. And understand that this is part of it.”
— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook). Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts