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.’’