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.’’