PORTLAND — How fitting that an “American Idol” contestant performed the national anthem Wednesday before the Trail Blazers hosted the Memphis Grizzlies, now that the remainder of the season has transformed into one long audition.
In all likelihood, the Blazers will not make the playoffs, and with losses piling up like a 94-76 defeat to the Grizzlies, players can very well start making those Vegas vacation plans.
And this realization means that more opportunities await the youngest players on the Portland roster. So with the Rose Garden as their stage, and coach Terry Stotts as the judge, the Blazers gave effort and fought back but ultimately could not compete with one of the gold standard teams of the Western Conference.
Now, the Grizzlies (51-24) are off to Hollywood — for a Friday night affair against the Lakers — while the Blazers search for a way to break a six-game losing streak.
“You hate to lose and you hate to lose at home,” Stotts said after his team dropped to 33-42 overall. “Obviously, (the Grizzlies) are a better team than we are, but you want to take away opportunities to teach and to get better, particularly with the young guys. More importantly, I want to make sure we continue to play the right way.”
As the goal devolves from playoffs to simply playing hard, Portland gave away 16 turnovers and misfired on 25 of its 29 3-point attempts.
For the second game in a row, the Blazers lost in which they never held a lead. Overall, Damian Lillard and J.J. Hickson led the team with 17 points each, while Meyers Leonard made his sixth start and finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
“It’s not the season that we wanted, playing the way that we want to,” said Wesley Matthews, who scored 12 points and for the longest time waved the banner for the playoffs, “but we’ve got to suck it up and play anyway.”
It was a night of wistful ‘what-could-have-beens’ with a crystal ball touch of ‘is this how it’s going to be?’ as the Blazers’ past intersected with their future.
Former center Greg Oden walked into the Rose Garden and took a courtside seat, just across from the Trail Blazers bench. Oden was so visible that if had looked straight ahead, he could have dared LaMarcus Aldridge into a staring contest.
When the arena scoreboard showed Oden — infamously known as a draft bust, having only appeared in 82 games due to several knee catastrophes — the 19,275 in attendance acknowledged the former franchise cornerstone. Oden closed his eyes and smiled at the reaction, a mixture of cheers and boos that ultimately gave way to more positivity as his image remained on the screen. Oden also applauded while watching his longtime friend Mike Conley hit a jump shot that sparked Memphis to a 9-2 start.
With their former No. 1 pick in the building, fans also got to witness their latest rookies all at once as the five first-year players appeared on the court at the same time.
A rare sight, but a necessary move for the health-conscious Blazers in the final weeks of the season.
Aldridge, still recovering from a right ankle sprain, sat out for his fourth straight game, and he had company.
Nicolas Batum also missed Wednesday’s matchup due to “decreased sensation” and strength in his right arm. Classified as a superior labral tear in the shoulder by team trainer Jay Jensen, Batum sustained the injury Monday night against the Utah Jazz.
The following day when Batum arrived at the practice facility for treatment, he complained of soreness and underwent an MRI that revealed the injury.
So, while the two highest-paid veteran starters sat — looking like $24.9 million bucks on the sideline — some of the other Blazers saw an opportunity to stand out.
“We don’t know what management is thinking; we don’t know who’s going to (come back),” rookie Will Barton said. “So I go out there and my whole thing is, I’m thinking: win, make winning plays … playing and producing. That’s my mindset right now.”
For the first time since Jan. 7, 2009, Portland sent three rookies into the starting lineup. And if the Lillard, Leonard and Victor Claver mash up wasn’t enough to force fans to look into the future, then coach Stotts’ first substitution of the game certainly seemed as if the Summer League came early.
With 3:30 remaining in the first quarter, Barton and Joel Freeland both appeared at the scorer’s table, checking in to create an all-rookie Blazer lineup for the second time this season.
“I didn’t notice that at the time,” Freeland said of the five-rookie lineup. “But that’s a great thing for us. To get experience on the court, play together and learn from each other’s mistakes. That’s what we need.”
At the point of Barton and Freeland checking in, Portland lagged behind 24-17. Although after the game, Stotts complimented the rookies’ group performance — “I just liked the way they played,” the coach said — the young group could not slow down Memphis.
After Freeland knocked down a mid-range jump shot, the Blazers trailed by six points, but it would be the closest they would get for the rest of the night.
Against the Blazer rookies, the Grizzlies scored on four of their final five possessions to end the quarter. In the closing seconds, Barton sent a pass five rows up to a guy in a red hat, and that turnover gave Memphis another possession before the end of the quarter. Memphis backup forward Ed Davis grabbed an offensive rebound and scored over flat-footed Blazers for the put back before the buzzer and the Grizzlies led 32-21.
After the Blazers finally matched Memphis — both teams scored 25 points in the second quarter — the absence of Aldridge and Batum showed up in the second half. Portland started the third quarter with three consecutive turnovers and once they settled into half-court sets, the offense spurted. The Blazer bench rotated in for heavy minutes through the second half and the team only made 1 of 18 shots from beyond the arc.
“I was pleased with our offense in the first half and pleased with our defense in the second half,” Stotts said. “We kept battling. We didn’t shoot the ball well in the second half …. Obviously, that affected whatever run that we were trying to make in the second half.”