Portland Trail Blazers start daunting 6-game trip with turnover issues

The Portland Trail Blazers couldn’t have reasonably asked for a better start to the season.

But will their act play well on the road?

The Blazers (5-2) have revealed an improved defense and have played connected, something coach Chauncey Billups had hoped for.

But now comes perhaps the most difficult stretch of the season, one that could get ugly in a hurry if the Blazers don’t improve in one problematic area: turnovers.

On Friday, the Blazers will open a six-game, nine-day trip that includes two back-to-backs before they return on Nov. 13.

And each game will present a challenge. It starts with a back-to-back at the Phoenix Suns (6-1), includes a visit to the Miami Heat (4-5), continues with a back-to-back against the Charlotte Hornets (3-5) and New Orleans Pelicans (4-3), then concludes with a matchup at the Dallas Mavericks (4-3).

The Heat, who reached the Eastern Conference finals last season, are off to a slow start but won 119-98 in Portland last week.

Making the trip even more problematic is that Damian Lillard’s return from a right calf strain remains up in the air. He suffered the injury in the third quarter against Miami. The next day, on Oct. 27, the Blazers announced that Lillard would be reevaluated in one to two weeks. He missed Wednesday’s loss to the Memphis Grizzlies at the Moda Center and Billups said the team hopes to have Lillard back in the front end of their upcoming trip. Sources told The Oregonian/OregonLive that he could return as early as Saturday against Phoenix.

But things remains fluid.

When asked Tuesday night if he might return, Lillard said, “I’ll see you in Phoenix.” That doesn’t necessarily mean he will play against the Suns, but at the very least, it indicates Lillard will make the trip.

Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic tries to save a ball from going out of bounds

Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic tries to save a ball from going out of bounds during an NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

With or without Lillard, the Blazers figure to be underdogs in all six games on their trip, with the possible exception of Charlotte. Portland has been favored only once this season, against the lowly Rockets (1-8).

When asked about the trip, Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic shrugged off the load of playing six games in nine days.

“It’s the NBA,” Nurkic said.

Nurkic also pointed out that the Blazers began the season playing six games in a short span — 10 days — before entering a four-day break from games. Simons said something similar.

“It’s going to be a tough one,” he said of the trip. “Two back-to-backs. But we had a good four days off. And I think we will regroup a little bit and just have to be ready for it.”

One thing that will surely add to the difficulty of the trip for the Blazers, according to Nurkic, is turnovers.

“We’ve got to cut that down,” he said. “If we cut those turnovers down, we’re going to be in great shape.”

Just how bad has the turnover situation been?

The Blazers committed 20 during their 111-106 loss to the Grizzlies and had 19 in last week’s loss to Miami. Thanks to the shaky performances, Portland ranks 27th in the NBA in turnovers per game (16.6).

“That’s been a little bit of an issue for us, just turning the ball over,” Billups said. “It’s something that we’ll just keep watching, just keep talking about it.”

Several factors have contributed to the problem. First, the players are still getting to know each another. Unfamiliarity can lead to miscues. Also, Simons said, rule changes have been tough to adjust to.

“It’s hard because you’re used to playing a certain way and this year they are emphasizing a lot on travels,” Simons said. “So, you got to kind of adjust to it.”

The Blazers were called for traveling five times against the Grizzles, with four belonging to Jerami Grant and one to Simons.

“Those were good calls,” Simons said. “We just have to adjust.”

The upcoming six-game trip won’t make or break the Blazers. But it sure could unravel a lot of their early momentum if they aren’t careful. Even so, they leave confident they will be OK.

“We believe that we can play with anyone regardless of who is out and who is in,” Nurkic said.

— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).

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