Usually Nate McMillan is seething when he comes into the post-game interview after a performance like Tuesday night's 103-87 loss to the Rockets. But this time around, after the Trail Blazers were beaten soundly in their own house for the second consecutive game, McMillan seemed far more perplexed than furious, more incredulous than angry.
Though that was just on the surface. Hard to imagine he wasn't furious after watching a team that was one of the hottest in the NBA prior to the All-Star break dismantled by a Rockets team that is now officially nipping at Portland's playoff heels. But while trying to come up with answers to questions about what is exactly going on with his team, McMillan readily admitted that he too was unable to ascertain the answers to the questions that both the media and fans were asking.
"We've played harder than that," said McMillan. "Defensively, we didn't guard anybody. They score 52 points in the paint without really posting up. Offensively, we're missing shots, spacing, execution is not sharp. It was almost lifeless out there. That's not the team I've seen."
McMillan reiterated numerous times that the team that allowed the Rockets to shoot 58 percent from the field was not the team he recognized as his own.
"I don't know where our swagger, our spirit (went)," said McMillan. "We look like we're not having fun. There's no connection out on that floor. I think there's way too much thinking going on as far as 'I think it's me now.' I think we're thinking about me as opposed to you go out there and play and do the things you've been doing. That team, I don't recognize that team, what we did tonight and what we did in our last game."
There are plenty of theories as to how a team can go from playing so free and easy to what we've seen the past two games at the Rose Garden, and from the sound of it, McMillan has considered nearly every scenario, but with little, if any, resolution.
"I'm trying to figure out what or why," said McMillan, "but I know the last two games have felt the same. We've been a team that scrapped, movement, energy, hustle and our last two games we haven't even been close to that."
"It could be a combination of things. I can't say. I really can't. I just know that what I saw tonight and the way we're playing, we know we're better than that. For whatever reason, if you feel like you've been rescued because guys are returning and you can relax or whether you think you need to get a lot done in the minutes that you're playing... I can't say.
"Again, I think it's more mental than anything where we have to focus on team and what we need to do out on that floor, whether we're starting or coming off the bench, however we're playing to help the team win, make sacrifices."
The players in the locker room didn't have much more luck than their coach in figuring out where the pre-All-Star break Trail Blazers had gone, but like their coach, they had a few working theories.
"I don't know what happened the last two games," said Nicolas Batum, whose 22 points, 4 rebound performance was one of the lone bright spots for the Trail Blazers. "Denver was a good game, exciting. Even the Laker game. We got a good new guy, guys coming back, a couple guys left. It was a tough week for us. The week was weird a little bit... We've got to get back to where we were at."
Though no one could figure the specifics, there did seem to be a consensus that the issues facing this iteration of the Trail Blazers are mental. The talent is there; it's now a matter getting the mind follow suit.
"Hope tomorrow we're going to get back," said Batum. "Mentally we're going to be ready, because that's mental. Not about basketball... Got to set our mind in the right way and be ready for tomorrow and the last 22 games."