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3 Trail Blazers takeaways from ’embarrassing’ loss to Clippers

Damian Lillard, Blazers

Forty-eight hours after reaching their peak, the Portland Trail Blazers hit rock bottom. Chauncey Billups’ new team was embarrassed by his old one on Monday night at Staples Center, falling 116-86 to the LA Clippers.

Here are three takeaways from the Blazers’ 30-point drubbing, one every bit as ugly as the final score indicates—if not more so.

From Pretty Bad To Much Worse

Portland trailed 56-42 at intermission, barely registering as the same team that blew out the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night for Billups’ first win as a head coach. At least some optimism lingered going into and coming out of halftime, though, the Blazers’ deep hole partially explained by the subpar play of Damian Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic and rough overall shooting numbers. Anfernee Simons provided a real spark in the second quarter, too, keeping them within realistic striking distance.

That fading hope vanished entirely once the ball was inbounded to begin second half. Lillard hit Nurkic, not even looking, in the leg with a pocket pass on Portland’s first possession. Paul George picked off a lazy pass from Robert Covington on the next trip down. The Blazers committed their third straight turnover on the following possession, Nurkic fumbling the ball so badly that it ricocheted off the backboard. They added four more giveaways before the halfway mark of the third quarter.

Portland didn’t exactly compensate with dogged effort defensively.

The Blazers ended the night with 30 turnovers, their most in a game since 1988-89, per NBA.com/stats. Even more hideous, somehow? Shooting 38.1 percent from the field and 8-of-37 from three, they managed just two more made field goals than turnovers.

Billups, who called his team “embarrassing,” summed up its performance best.

“We never competed like we wanted to win the basketball game,” he said, “and that’s disappointing.”

Extremely.

Not Nearly Enough From Nurk

There’s no use sugarcoating it. Monday’s game might have been the worst of Nurkic’s tenure with the Blazers, and not just because he had more turnovers than points while being thoroughly outplayed by both Ivica Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein. His lack of competitive edge and overall lethargy, even more palpable than his teammates’, was most disappointing.

The Clippers were always going to be a tough matchup for Nurkic, even absent Kawhi Leonard and Marcus Morris, a surprise scratch. Their team mantra this season is “drive, kick, swing,” an offensive philosophy bound to be difficult for any hulking big man to contend with—and made even more difficult by Nurkic’s new responsibilities in Billups’ aggressive defensive scheme. Portland is asking Nurkic to cover a lot of ground this season; LA adds to that amount in the halfcourt as much as any team in the league.

Some struggles were inevitable for Nurkic defensively even with all-out effort. This punchless level of fight, though, only exacerbated his problems defensively, ensuring they’d ripple across the floor.

They also carried over to the other end. How could Nurkic not have seen Zubac snuff out this high-low action he and Larry Nance Jr. telegraphed?

There were a lot of bad individual outings from the Blazers on Monday. Nurkic’s was the worst, and basic effort was often the biggest reason why.

Dame’s Glass Half…Full?

Clippers play-by-play announcer Brian Sieman was practically begging Lillard to go off against his employer’s team. After his prediction of Lillard shaking off shooting labors from the first two games of the season didn’t quickly come to pass, Sieman pivoted to all but guaranteeing Portland’s franchise player could explode out of his ongoing slump any moment. Finally, Sieman had to admit what was clear to anyone watching: Lillard just didn’t have it.

More forceful than that mea culpa? The thud of Lillard’s multiple airballs from three slamming off the backboard and hardwood.

Lillard missed all eight of his three-point attempts against the Clippers, going 4-of-15 overall. He’s now 2-of-24 from deep this season. Lillard also doled out three assists compared to four turnovers, a ratio last in the red on April 11th against the Miami Heat—25 games ago including the playoffs.

The silver lining here is that there’s no way Lillard continues shooting this poorly. Bad as he was defensively on Monday, he still showed plenty of burst and athletic pop turning the corner in ball screen action and attempting a towering poster dunk over Hartenstein when the game was already out of reach.

Billups thinks Lillard is out of sync due to prioritizing his teammates’ comfort in Portland’s new offense over his own.

“At the end of the day, we’re playing around him. We figure that out around him,” he said of Lillard’s role in the Blazers’ attack. “We have played through him. He’s one of the best players in the game for a reason. You play through him and everything else just kinda works itself out, right? But he’s such a selfless player and such a great teammate that he’s trying to make sure everybody else is okay, knowing he can always get his.”

Lillard has proudly spoken of being able to flip that switch throughout his career, a luxury reserved for the game’s truly elite playmakers. He alluded to the same dynamic during training camp, going into the regular season insisting he personally felt comfortable operating in Portland’s more motion-heavy offense.

Don’t expect Lillard to hold back any longer.

“We want Dame to be aggressive all game,” Billups said. “No matter what.”

Let’s see how he responds on Wednesday when Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies visit Rip City.