Embattled but bruised, Blazers barrel toward preseason expectations
With his left foot buried in ice in an orange Gatorade cooler and an ice pack wrapped around each knee, Josh Hart is steaming as he scrolls on his phone in the locker room.
The good news is the nose plug that was inserted for the second half of the Portland Trail Blazers' 118-112 loss to the visiting Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 29 is now gone.
While the swab may have stopped the bleeding from Hart's nose, the Blazers can't seem to find a way to stop the bleeding on the court: metaphorically and physically.
After starting the year 10-4, Portland is 3-7 in its last 10 games. Wins Dec. 3 at Utah and Dec. 4 at home over Indiana had Portland at 13-11 entering this week.
Meanwhile, the injury list continues to grow with news of Nassir Little out for the next six weeks with a right hip injury, Drew Eubanks fighting back problems, Gary Payton II still recovering from summer abdominal surgery, Keon Johnson's left hip giving him fits, and now Hart battling through a left ankle sprain.
At least Damian Lillard returned from his calf injury in the Dec. 4 win over Indiana.
There are plenty of other problems seen in the last couple of weeks with the Blazers, but there's no denying that injuries are taking a large toll a quarter of the way through the season.
"Once the season starts, everybody isn't really 100% healthy, everybody is fighting through something at some point," Blazers guard Anfernee Simons said. "Everybody is doing what it takes to win, even if they have nagging injuries or anything like that. We've got to be tough and fight through it."
That may be the one positive out of all this losing: The Blazers continue to show that fight seen early on in that 10-4, and no one on the team is panicking yet.
Especially head coach Chauncey Billups, who might lead the league in times said, "It's the NBA." His goal this season has remained to be the most "connected" team, and that's a goal he's looking at above wins and losses.
"I think our connection is good," Billups said. "Connection don't have anything to do with wins or losses. We still fight in games, we win games that we're not supposed to win, we lose some that we should have won. It just happens, it's the NBA."
Billups is right, connection doesn't show up on the scoreboard. It's points that decide the winner. And recently, the Blazers have been giving up quite a few of them.
Portland has given up at least 110 points in eight of its last nine games, the lone game under 110 was a 109-107 loss at home to Brooklyn.
Those numbers have pushed the Blazers to a defensive rating of 113.9, ranked 24th in the NBA. Coupled with an offensive rating of 113.2, the Blazers' net rating of -0.7 is 17th in the NBA.
Injuries might be adding up, but none of the players out are ones that scream defensive stopper outside of Payton II, who has missed all 24 games so far.
Billups' initial defensive wrinkle was to switch between zone and man to start the year, but as he knows better than most, the NBA learns quickly and punches right back.
Despite the messy defense, there's still been plenty to like from the Blazers in the first quarter of the season, most notably the play of Grant.
He's averaging nearly a career-high for points with 22.2 a night while blowing by his best season average from 3-point range, currently at 47.6% from deep for the season.
Couple that with Simons, who set a new career-high with 45 points against Utah on Dec. 3, and the duo are trying their best to keep Portland afloat despite the injuries.
"He's someone who's very talented. Given the opportunity, he can go score at will, and he does it on both sides of the ball," Hart said of Grant. "He does a lot on the court and it's been great to see."
It's not just on the court either as Hart's willingness to battle through injuries speaks volumes to the kind of character he's brought to the Rose City.
Lillard has said he sees the same kind of care and attitude out of Hart that the Blazers star tries to bring, and that's what you get out of Hart every single night.
"Josh is gonna be Josh no matter who's playing," Billups said. "We feed off of his toughness. … We love that about him."
The next step for Portland is, of course, getting healthy. But while that happens, there's still plenty of room to grow, especially for Simons.
While the 23-year-old is having plenty of big nights scoring, it's been coming in waves rather than sustained success throughout a game.
In his career night at Utah, 33 of his 45 came in the first half on seven made 3-pointers. In the second half, he didn't take a single deep shot.
Simons, especially when Lillard is out, admitted he needs to look for the ball more and try to take over games, especially with the kind of heaters he can get on.
"We know he's a phenomenal talent already, but he's still got a little growing to do," Billups said. "We can't act like Ant is 32 and is Dame. He's still got some developing to do."
Really that can be said for the whole team as Portland continues to navigate the regular season.
Up next this week is a 7 p.m. tipoff Thursday, Dec. 8, at home against Denver followed by a 7 p.m. tip Saturday, Dec. 10, and the same time Monday, Dec. 12, both against Minnesota.
There's been flashes of good and flashes of bad, as expected for a revamped roster. With the next quarter of the season rolling right ahead, Portland hopes those good signs can become the new expectation.
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