Something happened during last night's game in Cleveland that got me thinking about the way the Blazers perform when they get early leads. Fueled by a nice start by LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers got the game going in stellar fashion, eventually finishing the first quarter up 25-14. Good news, right?
Wrong. The Blazers were outscored by Cleveland in the second, third and fourth quarters on the way to an 88-80 defeat. Another early lead blown. Another chance at getting back into the playoff race thwarted. Frustration ensues.
And it's hardly the first time this season that the Blazers have blown a substantial first quarter lead. After the end of the first quarter of last night's game a friend who I was watching the game with noted that the Blazers were setting themselves up nicely for the rest of the game by taking an 11-point lead into the second quarter. I said that I wasn't so sure the Blazers having a significant lead at the start of the second frame was really a good thing. Turns out I was right.
Counting last night, the Blazers have lead by 10 points or more at the end of the first quarter seven times this season. So in a little more than 10% of their games this year, the Blazers have taken a double-digit lead into the second quarter. That's not a huge number, but it's not insignificant either.
And on the surface it seems like a good thing. After all, the goal of the game is to score as many points as you can in hopes of scoring more than your opponent, but when it comes to this team in these situations, something goes amiss more often than not. The proof? The Trail Blazers are 3-4 when taking a double-digit lead into the second quarter. Once again, that's not an incredibly significant margin, but it would stand to reason that you should win more games than you lose when you start the game on a good run. By contrast, the Blazers are 0-4 when they are down by 10 or more after the first quarter. We should be doing to other teams what other teams are doing to us.
When looking at the teams played in those games in which the Blazers take a double-digit lead into the second quarter, the reasons why Portland ends up losing those games more frequently starts to make sense. The four losses accrued after being up 10 in the first quarter came courtesy of the Orlando Magic, the Boston Celtics, the L.A. Lakers and most recently, the Cleveland Cavaliers. What do those four teams have in common? They're all divisional leaders and locks for the playoffs. The three wins the Blazers managed to pick up after being up by 10 after the first came against the Golden State Warriors (in that early January game in which GS was run out of the building), the New Jersey Nets and the L.A. Clippers (and we came real close to losing that Clipper game, by the way). Both the Nets and the Clippers are at the bottom of their respective divisions.
As for why the Blazers keep giving up these leads, I'm quite certain there's no one answer. Do the Blazers play differently when they've built a nice lead? Probably, but I don't think anyone on the roster thinks this team can coast to victory even with an early lead (at least I hope no one thinks that). It also likely has something to do with the veteran nature of the teams that they end up losing to. Guys like Kobe, LeBron and Garnett know how to will a team back from being down big. The Clippers and Nets (and to a lesser extent, the Warriors) don't have the players who can get their teams back into games by sheer determination.
Once might ask: Should the Blazers refrain from building big first quarter leads against the best teams in the NBA? Should Nate McMillan put the breaks on when the Red and Black come strong out of the gate?
Eh, probably not. You have to learn how to play with a lead, and these young Blazers are finding out the hard way that the difference between the good teams and the great teams often comes down to playing the same way every minute of the game. Being up early isn't worth a damn if you lose the game. Teams at the top of their divisions get better as the game goes on, especially when facing adversity early on. Frankly, the Blazers aren't there yet.