PORTLAND — Near the end of the Trail Blazers’ Saturday practice, a voice from within the huddle called out: “Let’s stay together.”
That previous night, the Blazers had lost by double-digits to the Houston Rockets. Then that morning, when players checked their phones, they read coach Terry Stotts’ daily inspirational group text message. This one centered on staying positive, a timely message considering how utterly miserable the locker room felt after the seventh straight loss.
So by the afternoon, the sulking had stopped and the gloom had passed. The players, touching shoulders and sharing airspace, gathered together for the final time of the day and recited that single goal.
“Together!” the Blazers shouted in unison.
This should be more than just a word to break the huddle. Staying together ought to represent the team’s main focus moving forward. Playing toward one unifying goal — whether it be for pride or to spoil another team’s playoff hopes — could provide direction in these last, lost days.
“You’ve got to find something to play for every night,” 10-year NBA veteran Jared Jeffries said. “For a team and a group of guys who have never been in this situation, it’s hard. It’s hard to find something to play for, to get a maximum amount of focus.
“We’re a team that always plays hard and at this time of year, not only is every team playing hard but they’re playing with maximum focus and they understand what their focus is on. And I don’t think we have that capability yet because it’s our first time being in this spot.”
The reason why the Blazers find themselves in this soul-searching slump, is the same reason why the Rose Garden has been filled with so many great moments in 2012-2013.
The emergent youth, defined by point guard Damian Lillard’s breakout year, as well as the pleasant surprise of a team exceeding all expectations — the Blazers reached a season-best 20-15 record and even once held the eighth playoff seed in the Western Conference — are now suffocating the fun out of this season.
These April nights, the young Blazers are aggressively overmatched in terms of competing with veteran teams that are confident in what they’re doing. And long after dropping out of the playoff race on Jan. 18, their last day in the eighth spot, the Blazers are essentially playing meaningless games.
So while the Jazz, Grizzlies and Rockets romp into the Rose Garden with a clearly defined purpose — teams that are fixated on moving up in the standings — the Blazers hang on to this abstract objective of just trying to win a game.
Better yet. Allow the wise, ol’ vet Jeffries to break it down.
“It’s just like if somebody shows you a picture,” Jeffries explained. “If you know what you’re looking for in the picture, you’ll say ‘there it is.’ Right now, we have a picture and it’s ‘go out there and win a game,’ but you can’t compete with the teams, say like Memphis who are in the fifth spot, trying to hold on to their position and move up and play and go into the playoffs.
“We play as hard as them. We have a focus, but it’s hard to have the same focus as them because they’ve been there and done that.”
Watch these games, and it’s clear that the Blazers are playing hard. But what are they playing for?
Rookies like Will Barton press on because they want to prove themselves. Guys like J.J. Hickson want a contract. Fighters like Wesley Matthews want the world to witness their heart and passion. These individual goals all have worth. Now how about focusing on a team-wide goal.
“When you look at other teams across the league that are not in the playoff race (but) still winning a game here, winning a game there,” Stotts said. “The players take a lot of pride in that. Individual pride, team pride — I don’t know if that’s nebulous or not, but certainly it’s an intangible goal that I think everybody has.”
Just before halftime on Sunday night, every Blazer player gathered for the timeout huddle. They trailed 56-32 and an eighth straight loss seemed to be on the horizon. For a moment, the team stood together, but physical closeness just won’t cut it. As long as the Blazers can’t seem to anchor themselves into a single goal, this frustrating stretch at the end of the season threatens to wipe away every positive thing the team accomplished months before.