The Brooklyn Nets return home to the Barclays Center after a five-game road trip to face the Portland Trailblazers on Sunday afternoon. After struggling with Chris Paul, D’Angelo Russell and Russell Westbrook in losses to the Clippers, Lakers, and Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn will now face Trail Blazer’s All-Star playmaker, Damian Lillard.
Lillard, who is fourth in the NBA with a career-best average of 28.7 points per game, will attempt to end the Trail Blazers’ (7-7) three-game skid. The Nets (4-8) went 1-4 on their road trip and have lost five of their last seven contests. In that time, Brooklyn was torched by a triple-double (30 points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds) from Westbrook in a 125-104 loss on Friday, blown out by 32 points by the Clippers behind Paul’s 21 points and nine assists on Monday, and schooled by Russell’s 32 points in Wednesday 125-118 loss.
"We stopped moving the ball offensively and stopped making the extra pass, and that fueled their transition," Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. "Defensively, we've slipped in these past three games."
Lillard has mastered the Nets’ defense and dominated their recent matchups. ‘Dame’ has scored at least 30 points in Portland’s last three games against Brooklyn; the Trail Blazers have won five of their last six meetings against Brooklyn.
Sunday’s 3:30 p.m. EST affair will test both teams on both sides of the ball.
The Nets’ defense, which averaged 118 points allowed during the road trip, has hit a major roadblock. The team currently ranks 28th the NBA with its 112 points allowed per game. The Blazers’ defense has actually been slightly worse, allowing 112.4 points to the opposition this season (29th).
Playing playoff-caliber teams in the Clippers, Lakers and Thunder was a factor in Brooklyn’s poor week. The Nets’ young and relatively inexperienced team was another factor. But veteran leadership, despite a rash of injuries, isn’t lacking with center Brook Lopez on the floor.
Lopez, who currently leads the team in scoring with 20.7 points, also leads the way with 1.8 blocks per game. In fact, the Nets’ ninth-year big man recently surpassed George Johnson's Nets record with his 864th block (866 now). He remains confident in the team’s defense despite the recent struggles.
“It’s not a question of heart or intensity or energy or anything like that. I think it’s just getting back to our basics, getting back in the habit of playing defense our way,” Lopez said.
Lillard has been critical of Portland struggles, telling media following Thursday’s loss to Houston, “We kind of suck right now, it’s that simple.”
Brooklyn has been playing short-handed for weeks without their point guard, Jeremy Lin (hamstring), who’s missed the team’s last seven contests. While Lin has been on the sidelines coaching with a clipboard in hand, the team has missed his presence on the court; they were 2-3 with him and have gone 2-5 since the injury.
Lin’s injury has forced the Nets to rely on Isiah Whitehead, Yogi Ferrell, Sean Kilpatrick and on Friday, Randy Foye at point guard. Whitehead’s tenure only last two games until he suffered a concussion and 2016 first-round pick Caris LeVert is still on the mend from a foot ailment.
The revolving door at point guard will continue for at least one more game.
"Just progressing as planned. He's on target. I'm not going to give exact dates but he's progressing on schedule. Atkinson said of Lin’s progression. "I'm going to listen to the performance team. We're going to be smart about this, take a long-term approach."
With five of the Nets’ next six games at home, the team will seek to utilise home court advantage and a possible Lin return to get back on track. Until then, Lillard and company stand in the way of the Nets' climb back to .500