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Chauncey Billups calls out ’embarrassing’ Blazers after blowout loss to Suns

Damian Lillard, Chauncey Billups, Trail Blazers

Chauncey Billups doesn’t care about wins and losses in the preseason. He views exhibition action as a glorified extension of training camp practices rather than a replica of preseason games, a perspective that could have shielded the Portland Trail Blazers from at least some criticism after their 36-point loss to the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday afternoon. As Billups told it matter of factly after the game, though, Portland’s process was just as if not more dispiriting than the final result on the scoreboard.

“It was a horrible effort, I thought, by us,” he said. “We didn’t get anything done today.”

To a man, the Blazers have talked a lot since official preparations for 2021-22 began late last month about their collective embrace of Billups’ two-way schemes and overall approach to commitment and accountability. Portland’s bright-eyed optimism at Media Day made it seem like the manifestation of those ideals on the court would be a formality.

But following a third straight double-digit loss, Billups and Damian Lillard copped to just how difficult it’s been for their veteran team to break old habits and rely on new ones once preseason games have tipped off—a reality laid bare on both sides of the ball against Phoenix.

“We’re trying to change habits and when you’re trying to change habits you have a lot of bumps in the road,” Lillard said, “especially when you’ve been one way for so long.”

Billups has never been under the impression the path toward changing the Blazers’ two-way principles was going to be smooth. With the regular-season opener less than a week away, he couldn’t help but focus on Portland failing to take advantage of the chance to make any progress.

“Habits are really hard to change,” Billups said. “But you gotta be chipping away at it, and today we didn’t chip away.”

The box score from Wednesday’s game, unfortunately for Portland, aligns closely with the eye test.

The Blazers definitely missed their fair share of open jumpers, and Lillard admitted he decided against taking the reins offensively when the Suns got out to a big early lead. It bears mentioning that Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, and Cody Zeller didn’t play in Wednesday’s game, too, leaving Portland’s revamped bench absent three of its four top players. Billups also didn’t outright dismiss the notion of an odd mid-afternoon tipoff having a negative effect on his team.

Still, there’s no excusing defensive execution and engagement like this, which Billups called “embarrassing.”

Billups didn’t just bemoan frequent lapses in communication and additional efforts defensively. For the second straight outing that included the Blazers’ starters, he also expressed displeasure with his team’s shot selection—specifically on contested three-pointers early in the shot clock—and carelessness with the ball.

Portland doesn’t need Robert Covington to take a contested, early-clock three that resulted from a single pass. Lillard and Norman Powell are each culpable for their way-too-casual disposition on the former’s transition turnover.

The problems in Wednesday’s game extended far beyond the possessions above.

The Blazers’ transition defense was exposed again after being shredded in the exhibition opener by the Golden State Warriors. Perimeter defenders still aren’t making life hard enough for ball handlers at the point of attack. Efforts to ping the ball from side to side in the halfcourt and attack downhill off the dribble were far fewer and further between than Billups wants.

“In the preseason all you’re really expecting is—for us at least—to change the mentality a bit, and that’s why a game like today’s is so disappointing,” he said. “Not because you lost or you got beat so badly, but because the mentality wasn’t there.”

It’s too early for Portland to panic.

While clearly frustrated, both Billups and Lillard downplayed the big-picture significance of the loss to Phoenix, alluding to the Blazers’ overall body of work in training camp and the preseason looming far larger than any single-game result. It’s telling that Lillard said he probably won’t play in Portland’s exhibition finale on Friday, too. If the state of this team was as dire as it appeared on Wednesday, he’d no doubt want to try and right the ship one last time before the games start to really matter next week.

Still, there’s no longer denying the extent of the Blazers’ preseason struggles. What they portend for the regular season, though, no one will know for sure until Portland hosts the Sacramento Kings on October 20th.