In light of the Trail Blazers' five-game losing streak, the longest of the season, here are five bits of advice to get back to their winning ways. The Blazers (20-20) host the Washington Wizards tonight.
1) Remember, tipoff is at 7 p.m.
When asked why the team has started so slowly over the past stretch of games, several Blazers began their responses with some derivative of: "I don't know."
They cannot make sense of it, but after such a strong start in January — when the Blazers went 3-1 on a road trip then returned home to beat the Orlando Magic and defending NBA champion Miami Heat — a certain sluggishness has defined the way they play at the start of games.
In five of the last six games, the Blazers have played the first half with a shooting percentage at or beneath the 39-percent threshold.
"It's kind of a groundhog's day," coach Terry Stotts said. "We get down, we battle back, put ourselves in a position to win, then we've lost the last few games. We're going to have to remedy it collectively, players and coaches. We can't put ourselves in that position and that's on all of us."
2) Stop celebrating 'Groundhog Day'
As Stotts mentioned, the Blazers have floundered in this cyclical trend of falling behind early and fighting back late. On Saturday night, Milwaukee built a 22-point lead but the Blazers pushed back and fell short in their ninth consecutive game decided by six points or less.
The Blazers certainly can scrap and hustle when the clock's against them, but their fighting spirit may be more harmful than beneficial as players rely too heavily on the comeback.
"We know what we're going to give ourselves a chance at the end of the game, and no matter how out of hand every game has gotten, we've always come back at the end and given ourselves a chance," Damian Lillard said. "I think because we all feel that way, we kind of relax in the first half of some games, and we got to figure out a way to start great."
3) Treat the bench like paprika — use sparingly
Backup point guard Nolan Smith had a nightmare on Saturday night. Reserve big man Joel Freeland might have worn the home whites just like his Blazer teammates, but he looked like a pedestrian on the floor.
In some boxscores, it will read that Smith and Freeland played three minutes against the Bucks. In truth, their time on the court registered at 2 minutes and 37 seconds of forgettable basketball.
Smith could barely make it over the half-court line, let alone initiate the offense.
Freeland recorded zeroes across his stat line, except for one personal foul — a reach on Brandon Jennings as he scored a fast break layup from Smith's third turnover.
During this pivotal span of just over 21/2 minutes, the Bucks reeled off 17 conscutive points. After the game, Stotts admitted that he might need to re-evaluate his substitution patterns.
"It depends on the opponent but yeah, you got to change things up," Stotts said. "I don't necessarily have a set rotation other than to try to keep a couple of starters on the floor at the same time, a couple of our scorers. But yeah, I'll re-think that."
4) Go with what works
One thing has held up for the Blazers during this losing streak, and that's their free-throw shooting.
More specifically, LaMarcus Aldridge made all 10 attempts against the Bucks and has hit 23 of his last 25 free throws.
On Saturday night, Aldridge also finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds for his 18th double-double of the season, marking the 11th time this season he's produced at least 20 and 10.
So, the response: keep riding the L-Train.
Though the team may be slumping, Aldridge is not. He has hit his free throws at a remarkable clip and produced All-Star caliber numbers. Aldridge deserves the touches.
5) Don't let it happen again
On Nov. 28, the Blazers earned a dubious distinction. They became the first team to fall to the previously-winless Wizards, 84-82. At the time, the Wizards had lost their opening 12 games of the season but found a spiraling opponent in the Blazers.
Now months later, the Wizards (8-30) are still the worst team in the NBA with only two road wins.
The Blazers simply cannot fall to such an inferior opponent at the Rose Garden.
"We had a good start in January, we played pretty good, played good basketball," Nicolas Batum said. "And now we — I don't know why — we started relaxing a little bit and didn't play like the way we played the previous two weeks. We've got to get back quickly to where we were before, and it starts Monday."