SALT LAKE CITY — It started in Milwaukee where two turnovers doomed the Portland Trail Blazers in a last-second loss to the Bucks.
It happened again versus the Clippers when a missed free throw left the door open for three-point dagger.
And on Wednesday night, more failed late game execution cost the Blazers in a 112-103 overtime loss to the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. For the third time in the first eight games of the season, the Blazers (4-4) failed to close out a game in crunch time.
The Blazers had the ball and a lead with just over three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, needing a few crisp possessions to preserve their six-point edge and leave with a road victory.
"When you have a six-point lead … with two or three minutes to go," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "You got to make the plays to hold the lead and come out with the win and we didn’t do that."
Instead things went wrong almost immediately. Coming out of a timeout, CJ McCollum dribbled the ball off his foot while trying to navigate a double team and Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio stuck a three-pointer in transition seconds later.
Portland came up empty on three offensive possessions before a miscommunication in transition led to a game-tying three-pointer. With the clock running under 1:40, the Jazz pushed off a missed Damian Lillard three-pointer and Jazz forward Thabo Sefolosha ended up wide-open in the right corner. He promptly drilled a three-pointer to tie the game.
"We gotta do a better job getting back on defense," McCollum said. "Obviously it doesn’t help when you turn the ball over. We still have to learn from that and continue to make it difficult on them. We don’t really get a lot of wide open threes in transition so we can’t allow that to happen."
Even after that debacle the Blazers briefly grabbed another lead only to give it back when they surrendered an offensive rebound and game-tying dunk.
"Rebounding and turnovers in a possession game," Stotts said, highlighting two late-game themese that cost his team the game. "In a close game possession matters."
The Blazers had two more chances to win the game in regulation, but Lillard was off the mark on a three-pointer and then had a floater in the lane blocked at the buzzer. Utah scored the first six points of overtime and Portland wasn’t able to mount its own comeback after letting the lead slip away at the end of regulation.
The loss to Utah was symptomatic of Portland’s crunch time woes early in the season. There isn’t one glaring issue. Instead, the Blazers have struggled in myriad ways when things get tight in waning moments. When they have come up with stops on defense they haven’t capitalized on offense and when the offense falters the defense hasn’t been stout enough to make up for it.
For Lillard, the crunch time issues come down to the minutiae of execution.
"Each thing has to be done a little bit sharper," he said. "We could take pressure off each other by screening a little bit better, throwing better passes on time and on target so guys are not having to reach back in awkward positions. But I think part of it is our execution. We’ve got to get to our spots, we gotta screen for each other, sprint, make hard cuts and just be strong with the ball."
It should be noted that the Blazers pulled out home wins over New Orleans and Phoenix by making plays down the stretch of close games. Those victories weren’t masterpieces, but Portland didn’t wilt in crunch time. However against stiffer competition in losses to Milwaukee, L.A. and Utah, the Blazers came up short with the game in the balance.
That’s why the key lesson to be learned from Wednesday night’s meltdown, is that there will be plenty more nights that post similar challenges. The Blazers’ success will depend on how they adapt.
"We just gotta figure out how to move forward," McCollom said. "And figure out how to close out games because that’s going to be the season, a lot of close games."
Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu shoots as the Portland Trail Blazers face the Dallas Mavericks on Friday, Feb. 3, 2017 at Moda Center. | Photo by Sean Meagher/Staff