The one statistic that will determine the rise or demise of the Portland Trailblazers

Whilst as simple a statistic, it has dumbfounded me for the first 39 games of 2018/19 NBA regular season.  The statistic? The Portland Trailblazers have won every game after leading by the end of the third quarter, and lost every game when trailing.

So far the 2018/19 season for the Portland Trailblazers has been one of the highest highs and the lowest lows, and the above mentioned statistic, I believe, is a big contributor to this.

The Blazers started the season 10-3. During this period the Blazers were one of two teams which boasted top 5 offensive and defensive statistics, and had beaten the Wolves, the Bucks and the Celtics all in a row.

However, the Blazers season took a wild turn where they begun losing games, and whilst they have had one of the hardest schedules for the first half of the season, it seems they were games which were winnable both away and at home.   After back to back blowout loses against Milwaukee (100-143) and the Warriors (97-125), both their offensive and defensive statistics plummeted.

Damian-Lillard-C.J.-McCollum

As of today, 6 January 2019, they have clawed their way back to 14th in offensive rating and 15th in defensive rating.  The more worrying statistic is the teams defensive rating, which was 8th in the league last year.

It seems almost impossible that a team (whilst not quite at contention level, but given a favourable playoff matchup could make a deep run) has not been able to win a game after trailing at the end of the third, no matter how small the margin.

Two examples of how this statistic is both good and bad: 

Portland v OKC (at home) 

Yesterdays game against the Thunder, the Blazers were playing outstandingly in the first two quarters and were seemingly blowing their opponents off the floor.  But as the Thunder took the lead in the third quarter, outscoring the Blazers 36-25, from a statistical standpoint, they had seemingly won the game, despite the score only being 93-87.   The Blazers lost this game after trailing at the end of the third quarter.

Portland v Sacramento (away)

Backtrack a few days before the lost to OKC where they played the Kings – the Blazers outscored the Kings 64-50 at half time.  In the second half the Blazers lost all of the momentum they had in the first half and were outscored 39-53, however a key point, they maintained the lead after the third quarter.

In the last quarter the Kings were leading 99-90 with 3 minutes to go and I thought to myself that they had blown the game.  However, with the stellar defence by Nurkic, Harkless and Aminu, it enabled Lillard’s usual late game heroics to take over giving Portland an 11-2 run to force overtime.  From then, Portland dominated overtime outscoring the Kings 10-5.  A win for the Blazers after being in the lead at the end of the third.

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But as I sit here writing this, I am trying to figure out why and how this seemingly impossible statistic stands, and for all of me I cannot come to a conclusion.   Portland in Lillard have the second highest second half scorer at 14.2 and he is also known for his clutch late game antics – as seen in a win over Golden State at home not too long ago.   Yet between Lillard, McCullom and Nurkic, they are unable to win games after trailing going into the fourth, yet being well equipped to do so.

Through advanced clutch shooting statistics (when the game is within 5 points with less than 5 minutes to play) CJ McCullom and Damian Lillard, Portlands game closers, shoot the following splits:

CJ McCullom

FG%: 47

3P%: 60

CJ has been out of his mind clutch this year, however, with a lower volume of shots to Damian, it explains his outstanding splits.  Portland also run a pick-and-roll a lot in crunch time, and with teams blitzing Dame, he usually finds an open CJ.

CJ-McCollum-Flex.jpg

Damian Lillard 

FG%: 37

3P%: 27

AST: 0.5 (2nd behind Jamal Murray and Jrue Holiday at 0.7)

Could it be a decline in Lillards late game shooting? No – Lillard shoots a greater volume of shots than CJ in clutch situations and is often blitzed by defences as explained above, which also shows why his assist numbers are high).  Also by comparison, Paul George shoots (42% FG and 25% 3P), James Harden shoots (35% FG and 33% 3P) and Lebron James shoots (45% FG and 23% 3P).  Whilst Lillard is not quite at the elite level this year, I expect it to round off over the course of the season.

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The team as a whole’s 4th quarter statistics on average are -1, however, with a winning record (meaning they on average concede -1 points in games they win also) this statistic does not justify nor explain Portlands problem.

In short, if the team wants to make a significant run in the regular season and the playoffs, they are going to need to alter this statistic – for better or for worse (preferably better).  Whether it be through a trade or a change in offensive and defensive schemes, I don’t know – but all I do know is that this may be the rise or demise of Portland’s season.

(I will be writing a trade piece later in the week which will add to a potential solver of this problem Portland has so watch out for it.) 

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