Once written off for dead, the Trail Blazers are going to the NBA playoffs, and on Sunday the man who drove them there didn’t mince words on what it meant to him.
“Biggest accomplishment of my career,’’ team captain Damian Lillard said. “Lot of fingers were pointed at me from the outside when we struggled, and people said a lot of things about me. I didn’t make excuses or cry about it. I said I would be better and I would man up – and I did just that.
“Now we stay locked in and go try to shock the world,’’ Lillard said.
The Blazers (40-40) will play Golden State (66-14) in Lillard’s hometown of Oakland in a best-of-seven series that will start next weekend.
The Blazers were 11 games under .500 as they entered March and overcame as much as a three-game deficit to the Denver Nuggets. But behind a torrid March – during which Lillard was named Western Conference Player of the Month for averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists – the Blazers went 13-3 and overtook the Nuggets.
The final steps of their comeback came this weekend, when Lillard scored a franchise-record 59 points in a 101-86 win over Utah on Saturday, then watched Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook eliminate Denver with a three-pointer at the buzzer on Sunday afternoon.
"This season has had its challenges,'' Coach Terry Stotts said Sunday. "But the players never stopped competing. We had some difficulties along the way. I am so proud of our players and staff for grinding it out, believing in themselves and never quitting on the season.''
The season turned in mid-February with two major events: The Feb. 12 acquisition of center Jusuf Nurkic in a trade with Denver, and the All-Star Break, which allowed Lillard to rest a nagging sprained ankle and clear up some consuming personal issues.
It was heading into that break, in a locker room in Utah after the Jazz blowout, where Lillard vowed to man up and play better when the team would regroup a week later in Orlando.
In the first game, Lillard scored 17 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter to lead a come-from-behind win and the resurgence began to take life.
While Nurkic become a cult hero in Portland – his passing, shot blocking, and late-game pick-and-roll magic causing “Nurkic Fever” -- it was often Lillard who was setting the tone. During a season-defining 4-1 road swing, Lillard averaged 12.3 points in the first quarter of those games, leading coach Terry Stotts to alternatively say Lillard “willed” the team or “set the tone” or “carried the responsibility.”
There were other contributions along the way, of course. Lost in Nurkic’s big night against Denver was CJ McCollum’s 39 points. Allen Crabbe scored 10 points in 48 seconds to resurrect the Blazers from the dead in the fourth quarter against Minnesota. Al-Farouq Aminu got hot just enough and played some yeoman’s defense, and Noah Vonleh became a solid rebounder and valuable perimeter defender.
But more than anything, it was Lillard, who is averaging a career-best 27.0 points with two more regular season games remaining.
Of all his accomplishments – Rookie of the Year, two All-Star appearances, two-time All-NBA, the shot to beat Houston, the 59-point night – Lillard now has his favorite: leading the Blazers back from dead and into the playoffs with a chance to shock the world.