It's often said that it's not how you start, it's how you finish. And while it's true that no team in the NBA has ever beaten another simply by winning the first quarter, you hardly put yourself in a position to finish strong when you're spending the final three quarters of a game climbing out of a hole you dug for yourself in the first.
That's been the case for the Trail Blazers recently, especially in the last month. On the season, Portland averages the exact same amount of points (24.8) as their opponents in the first quarter. Not the best option, but you can live with it. But in the last 14 games, the numbers have trended in the wrong direction, with opponents scoring 27.2 points in the first to 24.9 points for the Trail Blazers. And keep in mind, two of those games were against the Hornets and one against a shorthanded Spurs team. Take those out, and the numbers are even worse.
What's worse, Portland's last 14 opponents have shot a combined 50 percent from the field in the first quarter. That percentage isn't all that different from what you'd see during the pregame layup line.
The last two games against the Timberwolves have highlighted the issue. In the March 3 game at the Rose Garden, Portland allowed Minnesota to put up 40 in the first quarter. There was little improvement March 7 in Minneapolis, with the Timberwolves, led by Kevin Love, getting 37 first quarter points to Portland's 31.
Those early deficits are starting to take a toll, in the win/loss column (the Trail Blazers are 6-13 when trailing after the first quarter overall and 2-8 in such instances on the road) and on the psyche of a team struggling to find something consistency in the second half of the season.
"Right now I feel like we ain't doing nothing right," said Gerald Wallace when asked out the team's struggles in the first quarter. "It just seems like everything is going bad for us. It seems like, it kind of feels like we're going out there, we get two fastbreak points or whatever and all sudden we're down 10… It's like we've got a monkey on our back we can't shake."
It's hard to pinpoint what is causing Portland's poor starts. The obvious answer is defense, specifically from the perimeter, but there's no reason why the schemes that work relatively well in the last three quarters can't work just as well in the first. In fact, you would imagine that the starting lineup, which features four long-limbed defenders, would be Portland's best unit. For whatever reason, that hasn't been the case.
"We wait to get punched to punch back," said Nicolas Batum. We have to punch first.
"We've got to want it more. The other teams wanted it more than us. That's on us, our team. We need to show it. We say the same thing every time. We've got to be tired of saying the same thing and react. That's on the court. We've got to react, and quickly."
If not, the Trail Blazers' season is going to be finished much sooner than anyone would like.