No one has been happy with the way events have transpired through the first four games of this seven-game trip, and that goes double for those of us, be it players, coaches, staff, broadcasters and whatever category people who write for the web fall under, who are out on the road. Nothing makes an already long trip feel even longer than losing, and that's especially true when you're losing games which are there for the taking.
Though that was never really the case Friday night in Portland's 96-78 loss to the Celtics in Boston. The Trail Blazers trailed from start to finish and were down at one point by 27 points to a Rajon Rondo-less Celtics team motivated by their head coach, Doc Rivers, calling them "soft" after losing to the Nets a few days prior.
But there are silver linings to be found if you're willing to look, and when you've lost four-straight, you have no choice but to.
With the game all but decided by the start of the fourth quarter, head coach Terry Stotts was able to rest his starters -- no small thing for a team with four players who rank in the top 15 in the NBA in minutes played playing the first night of a back-to-back on the road -- while having an opportunity to give extended minutes to Will Barton, Nolan Smith, Luke Babbitt and Joel Freeland.
The struggles of the Portland bench unit have been well documented through the first month of the season, but there were glimpses of hope in their performance Friday night.
"I really thought, the fourth quarter, I was really proud of the young guys, the way they played," said Stotts. "They really competed and they battled. The five guys that played the fourth quarter, I was pleased to see them have an opportunity."
As were the players who received those minutes.
"That felt good. The more I play, the more I pick it up," said Barton. "You never want to play minutes because you're being blown out. That's kind of selfish. But at the same time you've got to take advantage when you're out there, do good things. Hopefully Coach see it. It's good for team morale. Mad that we had to come in that way, but I feel like everybody who came in, we just went hard."
Barton played 17 minutes and went on to lead the team with four assists. He noted he needs to make quicker decisions with the ball, as the passing lanes in the NBA close much faster than those he's used to in the NCAA. The only way you can learn the speed and adjust to it is by playing in games, and if Barton, whose value comes in his versatility as both a scorer and playmaker, earns the trust of his coach, he's likely to find himself on the floor more often than he has through the first 16 games.
The second round pick from Memphis also seems to be becoming something of a leader among Portland's end-of-the-bench unit, imploring his teammates who are in the same situation as he to adopt his fearless in the face of all obstacles mentality.
"Will told us before the game, we've got nothing to be scared of," said Freeland. "Let's just go out and play. No pressure, go out and play. For a kid 21 years old saying that, you know, I'm 25, I can't have any pressure. I've just got to go out and play."
Which is exactly what Freeland did in a little over 12 minutes Friday night. Scoring four points, grabbing two rebounds, two assist and blocking a shot might not seem like much, but for a player who was 1 for 18 in his professional career going into Friday night's game, the opportunity to have even the slightest bit of success on the court is invaluable.
"You saw (against the Celtics), I played an extended period and the more I played, the more comfortable I got, the easier it was to play," said Freeland. "The more that goes on, the easier it's going to be for me to play even more. So I'm not worried about it. I care about the steals that I got, the rebounds that I got, helping out on the "whites" when we were fronting. That's the stuff I care about at the moment. Thats the stuff I've got to learn and that's the stuff that's going to get me onto the court."
It's important, especially for a team that is struggling, to take something positive away from each game, especially losses. There's a difference between being able to move on from a loss and accepting losing, and much of it has to do with the ability to learn something that can be applied to the next opportunity.
"To see the ball go through the rim, do some good things on defense, that's something I can take into the next game" said Freeland. "Being that we've got (another game Saturday), relieves a little pressure off of me, relaxes me a a little bit more. And then if I get some minutes (Saturday) I can enter the game with my head held high knowing what I can do."
Sometimes players, especially those new to the league, can fall into a vicious cycle of not getting much in the way of meaningful minutes due to inexperience, which hurts their confidence, which contributes to their not playing well when they do get minutes, which makes their coach reluctant to put them on the floor the next time there's an opportunity to play meaningful minutes, which deprives them of ever getting the experience necessary to improve. This seems to currently apply to much of Portland's bench. But Friday night's performance, even in an otherwise disappointing loss, might have begun the process of breaking that cycle. We'll find out if that is in fact the case during the final three games of this seven-game trip.