OAKLAND — After being eliminated in Game 5 of the second round last year, the Portland Trail Blazers were filled with hope.
They had gotten past the Los Angeles Clippers, exceeding expectations by winning a playoff series.
Plus, a rivalry with the greatest regular-season team of all time was brewing. The Blazers were disappointed to be on the wrong end of a gentleman’s sweep, but they were proud of how far they’d come and were hopeful they would become the Warriors’ most formidable challenge in years to come.
“The growth part is the biggest thing for us, and I think we can not only grow a lot from this entire season, but really from this series,” Damian Lillard said in May.
It was hard to not believe them at the time. The only NBA team left in the Northwest had cap room to hire a difference-making big man, someone who would lessen their glaring need for a rim protector.
Instead, they gifted Evan Turner with a four-year, $70-million contract. Turner called Dubs veteran Andre Iguodala when he got the offer, according to ESPN. The deal was so lucrative, Iguodala advised his friend to accept it as fast as he could.
Now, the team’s problems from last season have not only persisted but compounded.
Against the Warriors on Saturday night, they couldn’t slow Stephen Curry, who scored 19 points and hit five 3-pointers for a total of 105 against Portland, which has allowed more Curry longballs than any other NBA team.
Curry dominating is nothing new. But it’s the signing of Kevin Durant that poses the bigger problem. The Blazers don’t have anyone on their roster who can guard KD one-on-one and they don’t have anyone who can deter him when he gets a lane to the rim. His full talents were on display in this game, scoring 34 points on 13 shots.
“I would attribute [playing poorly at Oracle Arena] mostly to how good [the Warriors] are,” Portland head coach Terry Stotts said. “We go into every game, and we try to be prepared. We played them well here in the playoffs, but they won the games. This is a new year. This is the first time we’ve played them here. Obviously we didn’t play well.”
A one-game sample size isn’t conclusive: This Blazers team should continue to grow as the season progresses. I expect they will because Stotts is a more-than-capable coach. And regaining some health would also help as Al-Farouq Aminu, a player who gave the Dubs problems last year, was in a suit instead of his uniform.
(But there won’t be as much relief as they would hope. Festus Ezeli, the former Golden Stater who signed with Portland during the offseason to fill that interior defender role, suffered a setback and there’s a chance he’ll have season-ending surgery to fix his ailing knee.)
The Blazers have a big task ahead of them if they hope to be more than first-round feed as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Lillard knows it, even if he believes there isn’t any real reason for concern.
“I feel like we’re going to be fine,” he said. “I truly believe that I think you, in the NBA season, have hard times and right now we’re just having a hard time. … Tonight we played against a really good team and we didn’t come out with the kind of mindset and the type of edge that we needed to get a chance and you had the kind of game that we had tonight when you do that.”
The Blazers know what the discussion is around their team: It overachieved last year. They know they’re mostly the same team that dealt the 73 Dubs one of their worst losses of an otherwise incredible regular season.
And they’re disappointed about it.
There’s no easy fix. It’s going to take time and a couple good moves to right the course.
It’s just clear that this year probably won’t be when they make the leap to being a real threat to the Warriors.
After their game, both Lillard and Durant referenced that NBA seasons are comprised of peaks and valleys. They both saw their respective teams as dealing with some recent low points.
The difference being the Dubs went 4-1 over the span KD identified as a swoon; the Blazers were 2-6 during Lillard’s.
And that’s the true beauty of the Super Dubs: By putting together this roster, Bob Myers has allowed his players and coaches an unparalleled amount of margin for error.