NEW ORLEANS – The Trail Blazers season was teetering on perhaps its most significant defeat Friday night when from inside the team huddle, Damian Lillard felt a sharp blow to his side.
“Like five times in a row,’’ Lillard said. “Real hard.’’
It was teammate Gerald Henderson, giving the star what amounted to a pep talk, only the emphasis came not with words, but with a series of forearm bumps by Henderson.
What happened in that late-game huddle, when the Blazers were trying to prevent another 20-point collapse, won’t show up in the box score. And it won’t be featured on any highlights of the Blazers’ eventual 117-112 win over New Orleans.
But what Henderson did Friday in that huddle, and other pivotal moments of this Blazers stretch run, just might end up being the final factor that pushes Portland into the playoffs.
See, according to Lillard, not only has Henderson become one of the Blazers most reliable bench scorers and one of their most versatile defenders, he has also become a beacon amid the stormy times that can arise in a pressure-packed playoff pursuit.
“I like having a guy next to me who is engaged and competitive,’’ Lillard said. “And not afraid.’’
No longer are the Blazers steered only by the voice of Lillard, and reliant upon only the offensive brilliance of their prolific backcourt. With Henderson, there is a growing voice of authority inside huddles, and another willing late-game weapon to complement the clutch-time resumes of Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Earlier in the game, as the Blazers’ 20 point lead began to disintegrate and eventually disappear, the team’s body language sagged. Heads dipped. Voices muted. And eye contact was avoided.
And there was Henderson, changing the huddle. He urged, reminded, inspired.
After the game, Henderson shrugged his shoulders as if to say it was nothing. His message in those huddles, he said, was nothing special, just something to shake the mood. He said he told his teammates things like “It’s still our game!” … and “This game means more to us than them.” … And “Keep executing. Keep rebounding. Push the ball. Stay with our game.”
“As they kept creeping back in the game and then when they went ahead, the timeouts … guys would be quiet,’’ Henderson said. “Heads were down. Nobody was saying stuff … in those times you need to be even more vocal; that’s when we need it.’’
So on Friday, he was the voice in the huddles. He was the buoy in the storm.
“You can see sometimes guys get quiet, they get in their head thinking about stuff,’’ Henderson said. “And I’m like, nah. Play how we know how to play. Forget what they are doing, we need to continue how we are playing.’’
That goes for the team’s star, too. It’s why Lillard got the series of bumps courtesy of Henderson’s forearm during that late-game huddle.
“That stuff,’’ Lillard said after the game, “makes a difference.’’
So yeah, some will see the boxscore with Henderson’s 19 points. And some will remember the big shot Henderson made in a two-point game that beat the shot-clock buzzer with 4:12 left.
But behind the scenes, Henderson was scoring bigger points. He was continuing a mid-season movement in which he is becoming the complementary leader that alleviates some of the pressure off Lillard.
It might be why Lillard approached Henderson at the end of Friday’s game, as McCollum was icing the victory with some last second free throws. When he reached Henderson, Lillard delivered a message.
“I told him at the end of the game … that he’s a soldier,’’ Lillard said. “He is one of those guys when it really gets tough out there, he’s one of those guys you know you can count on. When the game gets a little rough, the other team gets going a little bit and you are up against it, some guys get quiet. Some guys shy away from it. But he got louder in the huddle.’’
The two have been gravitating toward each other all season. Henderson says he sees much of himself in Lillard. And Lillard has been naturally curious about Henderson’s experience, and impressed with his confidence and professionalism in how he carries himself.
Around the turn of the new year, right about when Henderson started rounding into shape after offseason hip surgery and becoming a bigger factor in the rotation, Lillard found himself calling Henderson more often, usually to chat about a game on television, or game tape of an upcoming opponent.
When Lillard on Friday told Henderson he was a ‘soldier,’ the veteran said it meant something, but it wasn’t memorable moment, simply because he already knew the two shared a common respect.
“He’s become a good buddy of mine,’’ Henderson said. “I feel like I could tell him the same thing. I just like the way Dame goes about the game. He’s always in attack mode, takes the game seriously and plays with a chip on his shoulder. I feel like I’m the same way.’’
For Henderson, it has helped that he has rebounded from a sluggish start to the season and become the team’s top threat off the bench and a fourth-quarter staple. He said being a factor in the rotation helps him not only have a more impactful voice, but a better feel for what the team is going through on the court.
That voice and that feel perhaps was never more important than Friday, when the Blazers blew all of a 20-point lead and faced a deficit with 1:15 left in a game that was important enough for coach Terry Stotts to say “this was one we couldn’t let get away.’’
Henderson made sure the Blazers didn’t.
“He’s been like that for a while, but it’s just been getting stronger and stronger,’’ Lillard said. “The more his comfort level with the team is growing, the more he has kind of stepped out and been that type of voice.’’