TORONTO -- In the visiting locker room at Air Canada Centre the Portland Trail Blazers were visibly frustrated.
Damian Lillard studied a box score in disgust in front his locker stall, hanging around after more than half the team had already disappeared by the time the media was let in while disgruntled Moe Harkless took his time getting dressed before declining to answer questions from reporters.
In a game that came down to crunch time, the Blazers found themselves in a familiar position, the wrong end of a close loss. It was yet another frustrating night in a season filled with them.
"It came down to the last couple of minutes and they made the plays," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said after his team went toe-to-toe with Toronto Raptors before losing 112-106 while getting outplayed in the closing stages.
The scene in the locker room wasn't all that out of the ordinary. The Blazers were irritated with some of the refereeing and no doubt angry at themselves for letting what would have been an impressive road victory slip away late.
"It's tough because coming off last game where we had a close one and we were able to do what we need to do...," said Lillard, referencing Portland's 112-103 win over the Orlando Magic on Friday, a game in which the Blazers charged back to win in crunch time. "Obviously, it's not the same level of team (and) it's hard to do it two times in a row."
The difference between last season's Blazers, an inspiring 44-win outfit that stormed into the postseason and this year's currently lottery bound group, might just come down to each iteration's ability to win close games.
Portland went 23-19 in games that were separated by five points in the final five minutes during the 2015-16 season. This season, the Blazers are 15-19 in those same close games. Those win percentages are basically the difference between a 44-win season and a 36-win season.
"It was just that one or two things down the stretch we were on edge about," Lillard said of how the team performed in close games last season compared to this one. "Not to say we aren't on edge about it this year, but we're not making those plays happen as often as we did."
He pointed to one example late in the Sunday's game when Allen Crabbe stripped the ball from Toronto star DeMar DeRozan on a layup attempt with 43.4 seconds remaining and the Raptors leading by five. The Blazers thought the ball had gone off DeRozan's leg, but the official review gave the ball back to Toronto. Lillard pondered whether last year's team would've let that play be decided on the replay monitor.
"Maybe (last season) we were tipping that inbounds and going back the other way," he said. "Just those small breaks we were making happen sometimes. I guess luck was just in our favor. We haven't had that same luck."
In a rare media appearance ahead of the trade deadline a week earlier, Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey said the team was "probably a six point swing overall from being a six or a seven seed versus where we are today."
Today the Blazers are in tenth place in the West, a game and a half out of the playoffs with 24 games remaining on the schedule. Olshey was too generous to think Portland could leapfrog into seventh by changing its fate in close games. But the team likely would be squarely in lead for the final playoff spot if it simply split the crunch time games down the middle.
Lillard, too, is off the mark when he says much of the Blazers' woes have come down to luck or a bad bounce here and there. Luck is a factor, but the Blazers simply haven't been as good when games are on the line as they were a season ago. Their margin for error is thin and whether it's fair or not patience and perception of teams can hinge on crunch time performances.
This Blazers season may end up defined more by nights like Sunday in Toronto where the shots rimmed out, the calls went the other way and Portland ended up on a wrong side of a game decided in the closing minutes. Bad luck, bad shot selection or sloppy defense when the game is in the balance will likely prove the difference between a playoff berth and an early vacation.
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