You know you want to, so enjoy them all over again...
It seems as if the magic of that 13-game Trail Blazer win streak vanished as quickly as it appeared.
But why? What happened? Certainly there's nothing wrong with losing a couple of games. That loss to the league-leading Houston Rockets Tuesday was nothing to be ashamed of. That team is beating everybody.
But Friday night in Moda Center was a different story. The Boston Celtics limped into town with barely enough players to make a roster. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart were missing due to injuries and yet the Trail Blazers were outscored by 15 points in the fourth quarter en route to a nasty loss that is going to come back to haunt them in their quest for the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference playoff ladder.
Portland got virtually nothing off its bench. It defended poorly in the fourth quarter and it wasn't making threes. All of a sudden -- in a roller-coaster of a season if there ever was one -- the Trail Blazers looked an awful lot like the team they were prior to that win streak: Inconsistent and unpredictable.
But let me suggest there's one thing that's been going on recently that is making a difference, even toward the end of the win streak.
Damian Lillard hasn't been the superstar he appeared to be during much of that 13-game stretch. Lillard's play since March 12 -- a six-game span -- has been nothing like the 11 games prior to that. Those 11 were enough to have people talking about him as someone sure to get MVP votes and an emerging superstar. During that magical time he shot 48 percent from the field and 42.7 percent from three-point range on the way to averaging 34.7 points per game. He owned the fourth quarters and was carrying his team on his back.
He was, in a word, spectacular.
But in the last six games, he's shooting 37.3 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from behind the three-point line while averaging 24.8 points per game -- a remarkable turn of events.
Could this be a product of an expectant father's normal worries about his significant other and their overdue baby? Is it just a normal fluctuation by a streaky shooter? Is it because opposing teams are throwing more defenders his way? Is he just getting worn down?
I don't know. Perhaps it's a little of all those things. But the Trail Blazers are going to need that superstar down the stretch of the season and in the playoffs if they are going to have any impact. Damian Lillard, Superstar, is what separates this bunch from the rest of those teams fighting for the No. 3 spot in the West.
The Trail Blazers gave up 38 points to the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter Friday night and seemingly had no answer for Marcus Morris who poured in 30 points on 9 of 13 shooting including 5 for 5 from the three point line. After loss to Boston, Portland still sits at 3rd in the Western Conference but their lead over OKC is just one game and 1.5 over San Antonio and New Orleans. Portland travels to OKC for a Sunday evening game.
Box Score: Boston 105, Portland 100
Seemingly in the blink of an eye, the Trail Blazers season has turned from mediocre to meteoric.
But coaches and players say Portland’s recent 13-game winning streak was not the product of an ah-ha moment when something clicked, nor was it a brilliant strategic move, or that of a lineup suddenly clicking.
Rather, this late season run was the culmination of several subtle factors coming together – some earlier than others – to form what has become one of the more entertaining, team-oriented brands of basketball in the league right now.
Looking back, there are some red-letter dates that stand out.
In Oklahoma City on Jan. 9, Terry Stotts implored the team to start taking more three-pointers.
During the All-Star Break, Jusuf Nurkic vowed to clean up his shots around the basket.
But the earliest seeds of change were planted in November, in the hours before the calendar turned to Thanksgiving Day.
That’s when team-captain Damian Lillard read a just-published story detailing the frustrations of teammate Maurice Harkless following a 20-point loss in Philadelphia earlier that night.
Harkless felt the team’s offense had become stagnant, and was too centered on three players – Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. While those three players took the majority of shots, Harkless said he felt he was just “running track” up and down the court.
“We gotta figure out ways … not only for me, but ways to get other people going,’’ Harkless said that November night in the Philadelphia locker room. “Every game it’s the same thing … we play through three people.’’
By the time the team reached New York later that night, Lillard had finished the article, and had something to say.
In the hotel, he found Harkless.
“I see what you are saying,’’ Lillard remembers telling him. “I hear you.’’
That hotel conversation would initiate the steps in achieving what has become one of the defining traits of this late-season run: trust.
For much of the early season, there was something between tension and unease inside the team.
There wasn’t any personal friction – it was and still is a team that enjoys each other - but there were a handful of players who felt under utilized, yet they were unsure of how to address it.
Nobody questioned that Lillard and McCollum were the best offensive players, and they all said the two should take the majority of the shots. And with Nurkic, everybody remembered how he helped carry them into the playoffs, and they could see the size and skill of the 7-foot center.
But somewhere along the way, players like Harkless and Evan Turner felt they were just roaming and drifting to the corners while watching the Lillard and McCollum go to work.
Looking back, Lillard didn’t disagree.
“It had always been that way,’’ Lillard said of he and McCollum being ball dominant.
It created a predictable and often times stagnant offense, which in turn resulted in bouts of 1-on-1 play, or shots that were difficult, and forced. And when the role players did get chances, they often hesitated or passed up shots.
“Not taking an open shot can mess up an offense,’’ McCollum said.
By late November, the lack of movement, both player and ball - was just one facet of things going wrong for the Blazers.
Nurkic was missing point-blank shots at an alarming rate. The volume of three-point attempts, once among the tops in the league, had dramatically dipped. And the team’s assists were at or near the bottom of the league.
The result was a ho-hum 10-8 record against what computed to the easiest schedule in the league, which included losses at home to Brooklyn and at Sacramento.
For Lillard and McCollum, the clunky start added to their already heightened sense of responsibility to carry the team. And when Nurkic’s struggles mounted, Pat Connaughton’s hot start cooled, Al-Farouq Aminu badly sprained his ankle, and Harkless began to drift into anonymity, the star duo took even more upon themselves.
“I think you try to control your destiny,’’ McCollum said. “When we win or lose games, it starts at the top … and a lot of times you feel like it’s on you to win games.’’
Added Stotts: “When things aren’t going well offensively – and at that time we weren’t finishing well, we weren’t shooting well -- so when that happens, guys like Damian and CJ feel like they have to take more responsibility. And that can kind of snowball in one direction or another.’’
After the 20-point blowout loss in Philadelphia, it was clear to Harkless which way the snowball was headed. So he vented.
As Lillard read Harkless’ comments that November night, he paused.
“I automatically looked at (Harkless’ comments) and I looked at myself,’’ Lillard said.
When Lillard approached Harkless in the New York hotel, it opened a dialogue.
“That night, Dame came up to me and showed me the article, and was like, ‘Talk to me.’ And we had a conversation about it,’’ Harkless said. “I think it opened his eyes, because there’s a lot on Dame’s shoulders, and because of that, sometimes he doesn’t realize what’s going on around him sometimes, you know?
“He didn’t see the frustration I had, or that ET had … but (Lillard not noticing) was never malicious. He is always trying to do what’s best for the team, and that’s the 100 percent truth,’’ Harkless said. “So I knew when he came to me, it was genuine. And that goes a long way. Because a lot of guys might have gotten an attitude about it. But the way he came to me, he knew I wasn’t really mad at him, I was just frustrated with the way we were playing.’’
Throughout December, Lillard said he and McCollum started watching game film with an added focus.
They looked for examples of where they could have made an extra pass. How they could cut and move to create better space for Nurkic. Or instances where they missed Al-Farouq Aminu or Turner open on the weak side for a corner three.
By January, things started to turn.
On Jan. 1, the Blazers beat Chicago, and Stotts noted that McCollum had his best passing night of the season.
The next night, in Cleveland, the Blazers lost, but the offense was as good as it had been up to that point. The ball was moving, players were cutting hard, and shots were falling.
A team that had been averaging 18 assists a game, had in back-to-back nights recorded 25 assists.
“The Chicago game was where we turned things around offensively,’’ Stotts said. “That was kind of the turning point, and then the month of January continued to be a good offensive month for us.’’
Much was going on during January. The team started taking, and making, more three-pointers after Stotts’ made a quip about the need to shoot more as he boarded a team bus in Oklahoma City. Lillard became healthy after battling hamstring and calf injuries. And Nurkic started to work out his kinks around the rim.
But perhaps the biggest development was a realization by both McCollum and Lillard.
Lillard noticed that the more Aminu was given the ball, the more locked-in he was on defense. The more Harkless touched the ball, the more involved he became in the game. There was a direct correlation to effort and how much a player felt the ball.
“Everybody,’’ McCollum said, “needs to touch the leather to stay engaged.’’
Of all the theories and factors used to explain the Blazers’ success, the players unanimously point to one: trust.
The more Lillard and McCollum set up players, and made the extra pass, the more it became contagious among the team. Soon, Harkless’ play started to elevate. So too did Aminu. And Turner. And Zach Collins.
By the time the All-Star break arrived, Lillard and McCollum no longer felt they had to carry the load for the team to win, and as a result, the role players were as engaged and empowered as ever. Eventually, the Blazers became a team in the truest sense.
The latest example was Tuesday’s streak-ending loss to Houston, when Aminu, Nurkic, Harkless and Turner had big nights, which was nearly enough to beat the NBA’s best team, even though Lillard and McCollum struggled offensively.
The guards still play much the same, but they think the game differently.
“In reality, you have to make the plays that are there,’’ McCollum said. “So I think we’ve grown, and guys have stepped up and are more comfortable at doing certain things.’’
It is the culmination of months of film study, and games where players like Aminu, Turner and Harkless have backed up the growing roles the stars have afforded them.
It started on that November night, when Harkless vented his frustration, and opened Lillard’s eyes – and ears. After that night, the team captain began to notice more, hear more.
“I don’t think guys were upset, but it was just like, we could be better if we do some other things sometimes,’’ Lillard said. “That’s what they want … they are NBA players who want to help the team win.’’
And now, it’s all the Blazers helping the team win. One of the telling traits of the Blazers’ late-season run has been the different contributions up and down the roster on different nights.
“When everybody touches it, it keeps the defense honest and it keeps everybody engaged and motivated,’’ Harkless said. “Any competitor is going be to be frustrated running up and down the court. That’s not fun basketball. And the biggest thing about how we are playing lately is it’s been really fun. We are trusting each other, and it shows.’’
Harkless says he has no regrets about making those November comments, except maybe making them publicly before talking to the team first. But Lillard said he is glad Harkless aired them.
“When he said that, I’m sure everybody saw it, but nobody took offense,’’ Lillard said. “Everybody was like, ‘Well, maybe he has a point.’ … The thing is, it made us better. It needed to happen.’’
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum both struggled vs. the Rockets, going a combined 9 for 32 from the floor as the Trail Blazers 13-game winning streak was snapped by the best in the West. Up next the Blazers look to rebound vs. the Boston Celtics on Friday night.
It's the story
Of the Portland Trail Blazers
Who have been busy winning 13 straight games
They were 15 men
Leaning on each other
And they knew they weren’t all alone
No one knows that one day when things started clicking
And they knew that it was much more than a hunch
That this group must somehow form a family
That's the way we all became the Blazers bunch
The Blazers bunch, the Blazers bunch
That's the way they became the Blazers bunch
LOS ANGELES – On Sunday night, shortly after Portland had won its 13th consecutive game, an odd thing happened in the Trail Blazers locker room.
In separate interviews, at separate times, three different players used the same phrase to explain the Blazers’ sudden rise to NBA prominence:
“We are leaning on each other.”
First Maurice Harkless said it. Then Shabazz Napier. And finally, Damian Lillard.
Certainly, it seemed, with so many players saying the same thing, this had become a rallying cry, or at least a concept driven home by coach Terry Stotts and his staff during what has become the second-longest winning streak in franchise history (16 is the Portland record).
But in a fitting example that mirrors their about-face, the lean-on-me trait was more organic.
“We haven’t talked about it,’’ Damian Lillard said. “It’s just the best way to describe it. That’s just what we are doing. You just have to trust (teammates) will make the right play, trust they will knock down the shot, trust they will be there in help-side (defense), trust they will tell you a screen is coming. And we are just doing it.’’
The lean-on-me concept has taken shape in different forms. Sometimes, as Lillard pointed out, it can be in a play such as Al-Farouq Aminu coming to double-team as Tobias Harris tried to post up Lillard Sunday.
Other times, it can be a player picking up another teammate for an entire game, as the streak has been best defined by different players emerging in starring roles on different nights.
If Jusuf Nurkic has struggled, Ed Davis has been there to pick up the slack. And if Davis fouls out in 11 minutes, as he did Sunday against the Clippers, Nurkic is there to record a double-double while adding four blocks.
And while Lillard has been spectacular, including put-the-team-on-his-back moments in miracle comebacks at the Lakers and Suns, there have been plenty of co-stars along the way.
Napier made a big steal of Isaiah Thomas in the final seconds of the Lakers win. Zach Collins had a coming-of-age performance against Oklahoma City. Al-Farouq Aminu has made game-clinching three-pointers against Miami, Cleveland and Detroit. Evan Turner played important late-game defense against Golden State and made a clinching basket against Cleveland. Harkless was a spark against the Clippers. Ed Davis has had more big moments than he can flex at, and CJ McCollum has had dominant scoring stretches, particularly against the Cavaliers.
“That’s what teams do,’’ Stotts said. “Not everybody is going to have a night every night, and whether it’s Shabazz or Pat (Connaughton), or Ed … we’ve had different guys off the bench to have an impact. Different guys have the ability to make plays.’’
For the past month, Lillard has been trumpeting the well-rounded performance of the roster. He says he is trusting and his teammates more than ever before. As a result, the Blazers’ surge has been empowering for the roster.
“In the past, when teams have made a run, I’ve gone out there and tried to will us in the right way, or CJ will try it,’’ Lillard said. “But this year, we are leaning on each other … we are trusting each other and guys are coming through, getting big time blocks, big time steals, big rebounds, free throws. The more connected we are, the better we will be, and it’s showing.’’
On Tuesday, the Blazers will go for 14 in a row against Houston, the team with the NBA’s best record. Who will be the star? Who will make the big shot? The big defensive play?
Unlike in year’s past, that answer is hard to say for sure. And that, the Blazers say, is what defines them, and this streak.
“I think it just shows how much we are leaning on each other,’’ Harkless said. “We are trusting each other. We are doing this together, and that’s going to be important moving forward.’’
If you see a member of the Trail Blazers in public, try not to get too close. There is a high chance you could burn yourself because this team is on fire! The Blazers went to Los Angeles on Sunday and dismantled the Clippers, 122-109 for their thirteenth win in a row. That’s right – 13 wins in a row! Portland continues to hold on to the three seed in the Western Conference, and now has a two game lead on No.4 Oklahoma City.
Next up: The Blazers play host to the league leading Houston Rockets (56-14) on Tuesday night. Tipoff is set for 7:30pm at Moda Center.
You've heard it a lot lately, but it happened again. The Blazers have now won 12 straight after running the Detroit Pistons out of Moda Center on Saturday night. Damian Lillard played a complete game finishing with 24 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds. Up next, the Blazers go for a baker's dozen tomorrow night in LA vs. the Clippers.
Box Score: Portland 100, Detroit 87
While much of the glory has been given to Damian Lillard during the Trail Blazers’ 11-game winning streak, a subtle development has emerged on the fringe of the spotlight:
More than ever before, Lillard is trusting his teammates.
And they are delivering.
Lillard’s trust was on full display Thursday during the Blazers’ 113-105 victory over Cleveland, when he made two heady assists in the closing minutes that thwarted a LeBron James-led comeback.
“People during this streak have asked me about leading the charge,’’ Lillard said. “But I keep telling them that I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing unless everybody else was carrying their weight.’’
On Thursday, much of the weight was carried by fellow star CJ McCollum, who scored 29 points, but it was two late-game plays by Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner that illustrates the team’s growth, and Lillard’s trust.
On the heels of a 14-2 run, Cleveland was within 105-102 with just less than three minutes left, which usually triggers that special trait in the Blazers’ point guard known as Lillard Time.
Sensing this, the Cavaliers put James on Lillard, and when Lillard took James to the basket, it drew Jordan Clarkson into the paint. But instead of forcing a shot, Lillard kicked out to Al-Farouq Aminu, who nailed a three-pointer with 2:38 left.
On the next Blazers’ possession, Lillard missed, but the rebound was tapped back to him in the corner with Cleveland’s Kyle Korver in front of him. As Lillard sized up the situation, James came to Korver and indicated he would guard the Blazers’ star.
Inside the Blazers, Turner is hailed as one of the team’s smartest players, and he instantly recognized that with James on Lillard, it meant Korver would be left to guard him.
“Personally, I thought they were trippin’,’’ Turner said. “I was like, this is the best thing that could possibly happen. They are really switching. I mean, Korver is a great player and a great shooter and all that, but I feel great in the post, and over the years I’ve had a decent amount of success against people his size and smaller.’’
So Turner slashed through the lane and immediately established post position on Korver.
Flashback to last season and think of a six-point game, less than two minutes left, in the middle of a playoff push … would Lillard give up the ball there?
“No,’’ Lillard said. “It’s not that I wouldn’t have recognized that play, but I feel like … ET has gotten comfortable and we’ve seen him go to the block and be successful.’’
So instead of taking it upon himself to seal the game, Lillard didn’t hesitate and fed Turner the ball. Turner immediately went to his bread-and-butter and backed Korver down into the paint, where he scored with 1:49 left.
“Very unselfish,’’ Turner said of Lillard. “It was huge. In that part of the game, a critical part, to trust me enough in a mismatch, and be aware of my strength … it was great.’’
Does Turner think Lillard would have done that last season, Turner’s first in Portland?
“I don’t really know,’’ Turner said. “Because I don’t want to take away from Dame. He’s smart and always tries to do the right thing. But I will say, one thing we have been doing great lately is moving the ball.’’
Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he didn't want to read too much into one play, but he liked what he saw late from Lillard.
"That was a sign of trust and recognition,’’ Stotts said.
Lillard says the two late-game plays – part of his nine-assist night - were an illustration of how the Blazers have become a more well-rounded and dependable team. Sure, during this streak he is averaging 31.7 points, and has willed this team to victories at Phoenix and the Lakers, but he no longer feels the burden to do it all himself.
This team, he says, thinks. This team communicates. And this team has different players elevate their play on different nights.
“Us leaning on each other is as big as anything,’’ Lillard said. “We have to lean on each other.’’