Mike Richman

CJ McCollum shouldering the load with Damian Lillard out

CJ McCollum shouldering the load with Damian Lillard out

The Trail Blazers desperately needed him and CJ McCollum delivered.

He’s done it before, and on much grander stages, but on Sunday night at the Moda Center with his team staring down an ugly loss McCollum put together his best performance season to keep Portland’s playoff aspirations alive.

“He led us,” Carmelo Anthony said. “He led us tonight. He came up big when we needed it, made the right plays. His shot was falling tonight. He put us on his back.”

McCollum scored 41 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and dished out career-high 12 assists, pulling the Blazers back from what would have been a sobering loss to the Detroit Pistons. He played the entire second half, and committed just one turnover despite commanding nearly all of the playmaking duties in his 43 minutes on the court.

Beating a 19-40 Pistons team at home after surrendering a 19-point lead might not land too high on McCollum’s resume, one that includes some monster postseason performances and a Game 7 game-winner on the road last April. But a loss on Sunday would’ve pushed the Blazers' already dicey playoff hopes to the brink. So McCollum came to the rescue again, only this time playing a decidedly different role.

Damian Lillard missed his second straight game against Detroit, which thrust McCollum into lead guard duties away from his comfort zone as a high-scoring second option. For the second straight game without his backcourt partner running the show, McCollum struck an impressive balance between facilitator and his more typical fearless shotmaker.

In two games with Lillard out of the lineup, McCollum is averaging 34.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 11.0 assists. He says he welcomes the added responsibility.

“I’m ready for whatever honestly.  I’ve always felt like that,” McCollum said. “I work extremely hard on my game. I watch film. I adjust to the situation. I know how to play as the No. 2. I know how to play as other roles. I know how to play as a No. 1. Obviously right now we’re missing 30 points, eight assists, six rebounds. I can’t do it all by myself. I have to have help. I have to empower guys. I have to put people in a position to succeed, and take advantage of everybody’s skill sets, and still play at a certain level individually. I’m fully capable of that. I have all the confidence in the world in this team and myself because I know how much the game means to us.”

The knock on McCollum’s game is that it lacks variety. He can score with a dazzlingly array of dribble moves and counters but on most nights that’s the end of the story. However, McCollum has shouldered his Lillard-less responsibility admirably and he’s filled out the stat sheet in the process.

The Blazers have aided McCollum’s shift in roles. Terry Stotts is calling more plays from the bench than he does when Lillard is commanding the offense, and Lillard has been in McCollum’s ear regularly offering encouragement along with Xs and Os advice.

“He knows my demeanor,” McCollum said, explaining how Lillard has tried to help while sidelined with a groin injury. “He’ll tell you that I don’t lack confidence ever -- regardless of what’s happening. He’s just like, ‘Stay aggressive. When you need to keep the ball, keep the ball. When you need to make plays, make plays early. And then when it’s go time, go.’”

In the fourth quarter Sunday it was time to go. McCollum went. 

He scored 16 of 41 points in the final frame making 5 of 11 shots and working a two-man game with Anthony to guide the Blazers to a crucial comeback win. The scoring was familiar, the table setting was a necessary added wrinkle.

In the locker room afterwards, Trevor Ariza asked McCollum what his career-high was, and McCollum explained he had scored 50 in three quarters against the Bulls a couple season ago.

“I got hot,” McCollum told his new teammate.

“Stay hot,” Ariza instructed him.

To hear McCollum tell it that’s exactly what he plans to do.

“I think I’m built for the long haul,” he said. “Historically I’ve played well in the playoffs. I’ve played well down the stretch of games. Understanding there has to be a sense of urgency. We haven’t played well this entire season and for us to have a chance to make the playoffs I have to be elite, and I’ll do that.”

Shorthanded Trail Blazers find their playoff hopes precariously balanced

Shorthanded Trail Blazers find their playoff hopes precariously balanced

The beers and sodas balancing on Katy Stevens’ tray rocked back and forth, feigning for a moment that they might stay upright before toppling onto the court.

 

Stevens, a longtime server at the Moda Center, had nearly avoided trouble when referee Mitchell Ervin stepped toward her as she served drinks to courtside fans during the second quarter of Friday’s game. But the second step backward from Ervin ended in a mess as he bumped into the massive tray of drinks Stevens was holding and the beverages came crashing down.

 

The Trail Blazers playoffs hopes are stuck in a similar precarious balancing act, and Friday’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans pushed them closer towards a familiar calamitous ending. 

 

Playing in their first game without Damian Lillard, who is likely to miss at least a couple more nights as he recovers from a strained groin, the Blazers trailed the New Orleans Pelicans from the opening tip. They fell behind by as many as 22 points, alternating between giving up buckets inside to rookie phenom Zion Williamson or allowing his Pelicans teammates to cash in on open shots on the perimeter.

 

“Our defense still needs to get better,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, understating his team’s most glaringly obvious shortcoming.


Portland has the worst defense in the Western Conference, and any hopes of a playoff berth starts with a stronger defensive effort. The Blazers are good enough to score on most nights, but simply haven’t shown an ability to stop teams with any consitency. 

 

Some of the excuses are obvious. Lillard on Friday joined the ranks of Blazers not in uniform, donning a sport coat on the bench next to Zach Collins, Mario Hezonja, Jusuf Nurkic and Rodney Hood on the Blazer well-dressed but unavailable squad.

 

However, with 25 games left in the season, the excuses matter less than the results. The Blazers fancied themselves a title contender in the preseason six months ago. They have recalibrated that to playoff hopeful as they enter the stretch run of the season. But surrendering 128 points and allowing a team to shoot 54 percent from the floor in your own building is not part of any postseason formula.

 

“I don’t know, it’s not just one thing,” Blazers center Hassan Whiteside said when asked about the team’s defense. “I think it’s a team effort. It’s not just one specific thing that I could just tell you that would make us a better defensive team.”

 

The Blazers are short on answers. They’re short on healthy bodies. And they’re short on games left on schedule. The loss to New Orleans dropped the Blazers into a tie with the San Antonio Spurs for ninth place in the West, still three games behind eighth place Memphis for the final playoff spot. The Pelicans are lurking just a half game back in 11th.

 

The Blazers’ playoff hopes are hanging in the balance. There’s still time for them to steady the rocking, find their footing and avoid a spill. But more missteps and it all comes crashing down in a hurry, and they’ll be left with an offseason to try to sop up the mess.

 

Trail Blazers rhythm coming with new found balance

Trail Blazers rhythm coming with new found balance

The Trail Blazers path towards progress has been anything but linear.

Yet on Sunday night there they were shorthanded, battered and looking a lot like a playoff team.

There was Trevor Ariza with a looping dribble behind his back to get himself a basket in traffic. There was Gary Trent Jr. sprinting to the corner, knowing his teammates would swing him the ball once he set his feet. There was Hassan Whiteside tracking patiently behind an opposing ball handler waiting to swat a layup attempt before it had a chance.

And of course there was Damian Lillard, wand concealed, putting on yet another magic show to will the Blazers to their sixth win in eight games and keep them squarely  in the playoff hunt.

“I think we’re just buckling down,” Lillard said after scoring a game-high 33 points in a win over the Miami Heat. “I think we recognize that the games are chopping away and we’re getting almost in the 29, 28 games left area. So I just think the urgency, the fight has just been there and I think that’s why we’re having the kind of performances that we’re having because every guy on the team has it.”

The Blazers’ roster is strikingly limited while remaining highly functional. After finishing Friday’s game in Utah with seven available players, Portland had a luxurious nine in uniform on Sunday night only to lose Mario Hezonja to an ankle injury in the first half. 

Only six guys scored on Sunday, all of them reaching double-figures. For this iteration of the Blazers, that constitutes meaningful balance. Lillard is a wizard, Carmelo Anthony and CJ McCollum dance enough in isolation to find their own points, Ariza fills in some gaps with his rangy shot making, Whiteside cleans up miscues on the glass while Trent Jr. has emerged as a bonafide scorer over the past month.

It’s not a long list of scorers. But it’s starting to resemble a reliable six-man core.

Since Rodney Hood went down with an Achilles injury in early December the Blazers have been searching for enough offensive firepower to prop up an often porous defense. They’re finally getting it now. Following Hood’s injury they had had just two games where six players scored in double figures. Since Ariza’s arrival at the end of January, Portland has had three such nights in 12 games, including Sunday’s win over the Heat.

This is scoring balance out of necessity, the Blazers are running out a depleted roster with limited options. But it’s balance nonetheless. Lillard has spent the past three weeks torching everything in his path. Having other players shoulder some of the scoring load is necessary. Even superheroes need sidekicks. The Blazers have found a group that works, they all know that taking pressure of Lillard will be imperative in the final quarter of the season.

“Dame’s just playing really well,” McCollum said. “I think we’re all just playing off of him.”

“It helps a lot,” added Lillard. “Obviously when don’t have that balance, I’m probably going to look at it and think I have to a little bit more or I’m probably going to have to use more energy and try to force things to make things happen, but in a night like tonight, when we had that type of balance, I think that’s how you can have a better chance to beat really good teams and down the stretch. I’ll have more energy and I’ll be able to be stronger and more efficient to close out games.”

So whether it’s Ariza on the wing, Anthony in the mid-post or Trent Jr. from the arc, Lillard is getting the help he needs. The Blazers will continue to rely on their thin group of contributors for as long as they can. 

The Blazers are suddenly heading in the right direction, playing their best basketball of the season. But this wasn’t the plan. The path wasn’t supposed to be this crooked with this many detours. That’s why when McCollum was asked whether the Blazers could sustain this balance with limited bodies during the toughest stretch of the season he offered his own query in response.

“I guess we’re going to find out.”

Damian Lillard's complete game is drawing praise from Aldridge, Popovich

Damian Lillard's complete game is drawing praise from Aldridge, Popovich

Before he left the court Thursday night at the Moda Center, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made sure to get a word in with the opposing point guard.

Damian Lillard had just helped the Trail Blazers earn a potentially crucial win in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, and Popovich wanted to make sure Portland’s point guard knew how much he admired his game.
“He just said, ‘You just keep getting better, you just keep getting better and keep getting better,” Lillard recalled of the exchange afterwards. “And I told him, ‘That’s the only way I know.’ That was pretty much it, and good luck the rest of the way.”

It’s a testament to the tear that Lillard has been on over the past two weeks that his 26 points and 10 assists against San Antonio felt like a relatively off night. Over his past eight games, Lillard has averaged 42.5 points and 10.0 assists on 51.5 percent shooting, including 52.5 percent from beyond the three-point line. 

“He didn’t get 50 so…,” LaMarcus Aldridge quipped when asked how he thought his Spurs defended Portland’s All-Star point guard.

The truth is that Spurs did make things more difficult for Lillard. He shot 9-for-20, committed seven turnovers, and for the second straight game he wasn’t the towering inferno threatening to burn down the rest of the Western Conference. But to hear Popvich tell it this wasn’t Lillard slowing down or the Spurs defense solving his riddle. This was just another night where Lillard was the difference between a win and a loss.

“It was Damian that made that happen,” Popovich said in a typically short two-question postgame media session. “I mean, it was a good day, until Damian broke it open with his basketball play. He got through the double-teams and split pick and rolls and found his teammates and they knocked down shots. He was the generator, he did a great job in that respect and they knocked them down, that was the difference in the game.”

Popovich was effusive in his praise, but he wasn’t the only Spur to appreciate Lillard’s growth in now his eighth NBA season. Aldridge, the former Blazer now who is in his fifth season with San Antonio, had a front row seat to the first three years of Lillard’s career. He watched as Lillard blossomed from Rookie of the Year to NBA All-Star and became the face of the franchise.

And like Popovich, what Aldridge has admired most about Lillard’s growth isn’t the 35-foot range and or the acrobatic finishes through a forest of defenders. It’s his willingness and understanding in making the right play.

“He’s making his teammates better,” Aldridge said. “Not saying that he didn’t but he’s definitely doing it at a very high level. Teams are trying to take him out. Just like tonight, he got it to the right guy. His teammates made shots and that was the game.”

Lillard has taken his game to new heights this season, and Thursday was far from his most dominant game over the past few weeks. But with the game on the line his command of the floor was on full display. 

He checked back at the 7:43 mark of the fourth quarter and the Blazers clinging to a three-point lead. From that point forward he scored or assisted on 16 of Portland’s final 21 points, his fingerprints all over the victory that could prove critical in the postseason race. It only made sense that a former teammate and a Hall of Fame coach appreciated his maestro performance.

“It’s just growth, and trying to get better,” Aldridge said. “He’s doing that.”

Out of the darkness: Rodney Hood finds happiness with Achilles rehab

Out of the darkness: Rodney Hood finds happiness with Achilles rehab

Rodney Hood didn’t try to hold back his smile.

When the big screen above the Moda Center court showed the Trail Blazers forward on the bench with 1:02 left in the first quarter on Saturday night, Hood looked up and waved and he couldn’t hold back a massive grin as the cheers rained down from all corners of the building.

A few months ago, finding a smile and enjoying a basketball game seemed nearly impossible. But with a positive outlook, and the support of this family Hood is finding the strength to crack a smile.

“I’m coming along nicely,” Hood said, his left foot still in a walking boot. “I’ll be out the boot in about a week. Knock on wood. I feel good about where I’m at.”

The first few days were the hardest. The five days between tearing the Achilles tendon in his left foot on Dec. 6 and getting surgery in southern California on Dec. 11 were the most challenging stretch of his professional career. With his season over and his career threatened, Hood found himself in a dark place. But a long conversation with his wife, Richa, helped pull him out of a spiral. By the time he got out of surgery, he was starting to shift his perspective.

“I was real down on myself,” Hood said. “But once I went into surgery I had a long talk with my wife. I was real positive when I got out of surgery. I was going to attack rehab, do the little things and become a better person, a better player mentally. Once I come back, I know it’s a long process, but I think I’ll be better for it.”

That’s why Hood’s smile on the big screen was so significant. Early in the process he had trouble watching games. It was difficult to watch his teammates struggle and know he wouldn’t be able to help on the court. He said even showing up at the arena on Saturday was invigorating, and for him to feel the joy of basketball again was an important milestone.

“I’ve been in good spirits. At first it was kinda tough just to put things in perspective, but I just been grinding,” Hood said. “My family and my teammates, and everybody has been real positive. So I’m just trying to have fun with it. Obviously it’s not what I want, but I’m having fun with it. I’m making the best out of it.”

While Hood’s first public appearances came this week when he sat behind the bench for the Blazers game against the Lakers in Los Angeles on Friday and then made his return to the Moda Center Saturday night, he’s been a fixture behind the scenes. He’s been going through daily rehabilitation workouts at the team’s practice facility in Tualatin and says that he could have already ditched the walking boot, but his doctors were being extra cautious. 

After he got hurt, Hood said over 20 different NBA players reached out, including several who had sustained an Achilles’ injury and were familiar with long road back. He said he talked with Kevin Durant, Joe Johnson and Wesley Matthews about the rehab process and picked their brains for tips on recovery and staying positive during an arduous rehab cycle.

“Just to learn from the process,” Hood said of the advice he received. “Don’t think it’s going to be easy. It’s going to be a tough grind, but just learn about yourself throughout it. Don’t waste this time just sitting around, just learn about yourself. So I been doing that. I been doing a lot of reading, watching a lot of basketball, watching a lot of shows. So it’s been good. I’m spending a lot of time with my family. That’s been the best part about it.”

With the boot off, Hood will ramp up his activities. He doesn’t have a definitive timeline for when he’ll play again, but he’s optimistic he’s headed in the right direction.

“I’ll continue to build strength with it, within my Achilles, and keep taking steps and passing my tests and checklists that I got,” he said.  “I should be healing pretty fast, barring no setbacks.”

With Ariza on board and Lillard on fire, the Blazers are playing their best basketball

With Ariza on board and Lillard on fire, the Blazers are playing their best basketball

There was a cautious optimism in the air on Wednesday at the Moda Center.

Damian Lillard continued his recent torrid pace and notched his first career triple-double, Trevor Ariza continued to his well-rounded contributions as a steadying presence in the starting lineup and the Trail Blazers dispatched the visiting Houston Rockets.

But after a rocky season derailed by injuries and littered with troubling losses, no one was truly ready to say this team is turning a corner.

“One game at a time,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, mixing in a cliche with his own predictable brand of hyper-caution. “You know, look back (at the end of the season) and see where the corners are.”

However even Stotts would admit that the Blazers are playing better than earlier in the season, recognizing that his point guard is in the best scoring rhythm of his career and that the recent trade for Ariza has provided real help on the wing.

The Blazers have won three of their last four games, and for the first time all season have won consecutive games against teams with winning records. It’s not a surprise that the team wasn’t ready to say they’ve turned a corner or finally solved all their issues.

They've been burned by optimism before. But it’s also not a stretch to say that they have played their best basketball over the last week with Lillard playing at the highest level he’s ever reached and Ariza stabilizing an imbalanced roster. 

“We’re finding it,” Carmelo Anthony said. “I think we’re playing good basketball right now. I think Dame has it locked it in. He’s playing at a very high, high level right now and guys are just doing what they’re supposed to do. If that’s us playing our best basketball, then so be it.”

Over the last four games, Lillard is putting up video game numbers: 48.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists on 54 percent shooting from the floor and 56 percent from three-point range. He capped that with his first career triple-double 36 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists in Wednesday's victory over Houston.

He’s been as lethal as he’s ever been as tries to push the Blazers back into the playoff picture. But even the Blazers point guard and resident relentless optimist admitted that he had thought the team was turning a corner earlier this season before they slipped back into a losing streak.

“I think the last time we had a good stretch of games that we won it was against all teams that weren’t in the playoffs,” Lillard said. “I was encouraged by it because I thought the style that we were playing could stand up against good teams but we just weren’t able to execute those things against good teams.”

Lillard was referencing a four-game winning streak in December when the Blazers beat Phoenix, Golden State, Orlando and Minnesota only to turn around lose five in a row and slip right back down in the standings. The difference in this stretch of games is not just that Lillard has transformed into a supernova, but that Ariza’s addition helps this roster make sense. His size, smarts and shooting on the perimeter are all obvious upgrades that team has been missing since Rodney Hood went down with a season-ending injury in early December.

“A lot of times you need that connective tissue to make things come together,” Anthony said. “Trevor was that. He’s been that his whole career. He’s that now, and a guy like that it’s easy for him to come and fit in anywhere because what he brings to the game you can’t teach. He just has it, and he’s had it since I’ve known him in high school. He’s still doing the same thing.”

In three games, Ariza is averaging 16.3 points per game and shooting 59 percent from the floor. He been tasked with the most difficult defensive assignments as the primary defender on MVP candidates Luka Doncic and James Harden, and while he hasn’t been otherworldly, he’s been solid enough to help in a spot where the Blazers desperately need it.

There are stiff tests on the horizon for the Blazers with games coming against the Lakers, Jazz and Nuggets, which is part of why no one in the Portland locker room sounded particularly triumphant about the team playing better. Their improvement is more necessity than luxury. But maybe when they team looks back and assesses where the corners were this season, they’ll see this stretch as a turning point.

“These last few games we’ve been consistent,” Lillard said. “And the way that we’re playing this is probably our best stretch of the year and it’s coming at the right time.”

Blazers and Rip City show their appreciation for Kobe Bryant

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Blazers and Rip City show their appreciation for Kobe Bryant

There have been plenty of cheers for Kobe Bryant in Portland over the years, only typically they'd be chased by boos.

The purple and gold clad Lakers faithful would pack the Rose Garden and then the Moda Center when Bryant would come to town. It wasn’t uncommon to see a quarter of the building rooting for the road team with thousands of No. 8s and No. 24s dispersed throughout the building.

Laker fans would cheer for the hero while Blazers fans would drown them out jeering a hated rival.

Make no mistake Bryant was a villain in Rip City. It was a well earned reputation that came from defeating the Blazers in 2000 Western Conference Finals, and then ushering Portland out of the playoffs in each of the next two seasons. Then there was a double overtime game-winner in Portland 2004, and the 65 points in Los Angeles in 2007.

He tormented the Blazers with brilliance and bravado. The thousands of Lakers fans that would pile into the arena in Portland only added to his aura and fueled the boos from the Rip City faithful. In his final game in this building in 2016, Bryant thanked Blazers fans for booing him wholeheartedly one last time.

Bryant died on Sunday afternoon in a helicopter accident that also took the life of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others. It was a sudden tragedy that rocked the basketball world, and beyond. 

There was an unmistakable weight in the arena, a heaviness that draped across a game that felt at best secondary to the news of day. And on Sunday likely for the first time in Portland basketball history, Kobe Bryant received cheers from the entire building.

It started early when both teams took intentional turnovers to begin the game. The Blazers holding the ball for a 24 second shot clock violation before the Pacers held the ball in the backcourt for an eight-second violation. The building erupted at the tribute, recognizing the nod to Bryant's jersey numbers and honoring him with a standing ovation.

Then in the third quarter the Blazers game operations team showed a fan on the screen holding a gold No. 24 jersey. In the past, the game ops crew would find Lakers fans filing out of the building, the only time a Kobe jersey would get cheers was if it were headed for the exits. However on Sunday, as the camera lingered on the young man displaying the last name on his Lakers jersey the entire building gave a full throated cheer for Bryant, honoring a basketball legend as the big screen flashed to handwritten signs that read “I Love No. 24” and “Kobe” adorned with hearts.

“Everybody felt the weight today. Hurt today. We had to carry on,” Damian Lillard said afterwards. “I think it was the right decision to go out and compete in his honor. I think that’s what he would’ve wanted. I think that’s what was on everybody’s mind. Obviously throughout the game you think about it ... Timeouts and just random dead moments of the game he’s on your mind just because it’s such an unfortunate, sad situation. It was just a tough game to play just as far as your energy and where your heart is, to say the least.”

While Bryant was a villain with the Blazers fan base, he is a friend if not idol to most of the players in the Blazers locker room. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza were both very close with Bryant while Lillard and CJ McCollum had forged relationships with him over their careers.

Ariza chose not to speak with reporters after the game, understandably not yet ready to publicly process the loss of a close friend just hours after it happened. Anthony was emotional as he answered questions postgame, explaining that Bryant would have wanted him to play even under difficult circumstances.

“Our friendship, relationship was deeper than basketball,” Anthony said. “It was family. It was friendship. Basketball was the last piece of connective tissue between those two.”

Lillard said the game offered him moments to escape while McCollum noted how challenging it is for those in the NBA that knew Bryant to truly mourn with games coming every other day. But they both fondly remembered Bryant for his impressive work ethic, and his willingness to offer advice to them when they were young players first entering the league.

When pressed for a memory of competing against Bryant, Lillard mentioned his NBA debut and then trailed off when a reporter noted another matchup the two had at the end Lillard’s rookie season.

“Best player I ever played against,” Lillard said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

There will be more time to reflect on Bryant the imperfect player and imperfect person in the days and months to come. Sunday was mostly about catharsis, and a city appreciating its once hated archrival.

Forever the cheers for Kobe Bryant in Portland would get swallowed up by boos and jeers until Sunday when the fans stood and the roars lingered.

Lillard's leadership guides the Blazers through trying season

Lillard's leadership guides the Blazers through trying season

Before he even ate lunch on Monday Damian Lillard knew it was going to be a special day.

“It wasn’t about the points, it was just the mentality,” Lillard said after breaking his own franchise record and scoring 61 points, including 11 three-pointers in an overtime win over the Golden State Warriors. “We walked through shootaround and did everything we needed to do. Even when I went home after shootaround it just one of those days. When I came here, I wasn’t coming here to lose this game and it was as simple as that.”

With a performance for the ages, Lillard dragged the Blazers to an overtime win with the type of night that garners well deserved superlatives and sends media members to Basketball-Reference to try to put an all-time game in perspective.

Lillard was locked in early and even if he had a notion that he was headed for a dominant night, he let his demeanor do the talking.

“I don’t come in the huddle and say, ‘We’re not losing today!’ It’s more like when the game starts they feel my vibe,” Lillard said. “They feel the energy to how I typically interact to how interact when it’s one of those nights. I think that’s the only way to explain it.”

When the face of the franchise scores 61 points, it’s natural to talk about leadership and tone setting, adding intangible traits to help capture the on court heroics. Certainly Lillard was the leader and tone setter on Monday, but importantly he also was on Saturday night in Oklahoma City and he still will be when the Blazers take the practice court on Wednesday morning. 

His leadership has been celebrated for seasons, singled out for helping his teams overachieve and getting the most out of his teammates. But perhaps no season has better encapsulated Lillard’s strengths as a leader than this one where the Blazers are injured and scuffling and but haven’t fractured or packed it in.

“He’s very consistent on the court and off the court,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Guys follow. That’s the case right now.”

OPEN HOUSE

Before he joined the Blazers, Anthony had heard the stories of Lillard as a leader and a winner. He was drawn to that early, but the way Lillard welcomed him in quickly and earnestly was eye opening. 

“He just opened his house up to me,” Anthony said. “This is his home. He opened it up to me. He made me feel wanted. He made me feel appreciated in here. When you have that and somebody opens their home up to you like that, that’s a special person.”

Lillard said he made a concerted effort to make sure Anthony was comfortable on the court when he first arrived. They talked about where Anthony wanted the ball and how that would look in their offense while maintaining a balance alongside Lillard and CJ McCollum. 
Beyond Xs and Os, Lillard has been inquisitive, probing Anthony for wisdom gleaned through 16-plus NBA seasons.

“We talk all the time,” Anthony said. “Basketball-wise just how to deal with certain things. How to deal with being the face of a franchise. Everything is on his shoulders. We talk about that. He asks a lot of questions. We discuss it, and he wants to know what that’s like and he wants to be better.”

That willingness and eagerness to listen and learn from a veteran with a shinier resume and more global cache impressed Anthony. It’s believable that Lillard commands a locker room full of his peers, and a roster dotted with first and second year players. But to welcome in a future Hall of Famer and make him feel comfortable while also leaning on him for feedback showed Lillard’s real strength. He has an innate gift for understanding how to reach people in different ways and an authenticity that makes those interactions feel natural.

A VETERAN EXAMPLE

Whether it’s 34-year-old Carmelo Anthony or 20-year-old Anfernee Simons, Lillard can forge a real connection. 

“I can come to him about anything,” Simons said. “Whenever I have problems with stuff he comes let’s me know ‘Just be who you are.’ I kinda carry that throughout my game no matter what happens.”

Lillard didn’t wait until Simons was a rotational mainstay to start offering guidance. Just months into Simons’ rookie season Lillard introduced him to Phil Beckner, Lillard’s trainer and former coach at Weber State.

Lillard wanted to show Simons how to work like a professional, which included training beyond a typical NBA practice. This season, with Simons getting real minutes for the first time, it isn’t uncommon for he and Lillard to come back to the Blazers practice facility at night on an off day and go through an hour-long workout with Beckner. 

One of the reasons the Blazers didn’t want to send Simons to the G League for extended stints last season is so he could be around Lillard, and see what All-Star level preparation looked liked.

“You see it first hand from him,” Simons said. “So you just kinda learn it as you’re watching. Even last year when he was playing a lot of minutes the night before he would come in the next day after practice and still get in his work. Just seeing that made me want to work harder because even though I wasn’t playing last year I thought to myself ‘He’s playing all these minutes (and still working) then I should be doing the same.”

CALM AND COOL

Perhaps no player on the Blazers roster has tested Lillard’s leadership abilities this season quite like Hassan Whiteside, Portland’s talented but flawed center.

The Blazers desperately need the best of Whiteside each night to have a chance, which is why Lillard has spent the season trying to coax consistent high-level play from Portland’s biggest offseason acquisition. There was a feeling out period particularly on offense as Lillard and Whiteside searched for better chemistry in pick and rolls. There have been obvious moments of frustration on both sides, but nothing that has escalated beyond a quick back and forth on the bench. 

Lillard had gotten the most out of a castoff big man before. But unlike Jusuf Nurkic, who was much younger and more impressionable when he arrived in Portland, Whiteside was 30 years old, a seven-year veteran with ingrained habits and preferences. So while Lillard will get on Whiteside for miscues here and there he understands where the lines are in their relationship.

“He’s just a calm guy regardless of whatever happened you know he never tries to show you up on the court,” Whiteside says. “He never tries to make his teammates look bad. He can easily turn the ball over and it can be someone else's fault -- and I’m not going to say no names -- but there’s guys around the league that will be like, “Ahhh man!” He don’t do that. He don’t try to show up nobody. He’s a great guy.”

It’s that balance and consistency which Lillard brings every day that Whiteside has come to appreciate.

Anthony, Simons and Whiteside are perfect examples of Lillard’s shapeshifting leadership abilities. But he does it across the roster, regularly sending texts to his teammates to check in on how they’re feeling and keeping them engaged. That’s not a new development by any means, it’s been a part of Lillard’s leadership approach for years, but during a trying season it has been particularly valuable.

The Blazers trust Lillard implicitly and explicitly. He picks his spots to speak up in the locker room, and when to duck out quietly. He knows what buttons to press and when he can lean on guys and when to give them space. 

Behind the scenes Lillard has been consistent with his messaging, preaching that the team has been in this position and rallied from a seemingly lost year to make the playoffs. He believes the Blazers will end up in the postseason, and hasn’t wavered from that even as the team has been struck by injuries and the losses have piled up.

So on Monday night when Lillard took over the game and carried the Blazers back from late deficits in the fourth quarter and again in overtime, the Blazers followed their leader. Not just because he was having an all-time great game but because he has laid the foundation all season long that they can place their trust in him.

“You show that belief in your actions, your body language, your attitude all the time,” Lillard said. “So it’s not like I was having a good game tonight so everybody believed because I believed. It’s like they know my disposition all the time. They know my attitude and personality all the time. So I think that’s the personality of our team. We always think we have a chance regardless or what our record is or anything like that, and that’s just who I am.”

Struggling Blazers have turned it around before, can they do it again?

Struggling Blazers have turned it around before, can they do it again?

If there’s a silver lining in the Trail Blazers red and black nightmare of a season, it’s they have some experience waking up from a months long slumber.

 

Before tip off on Saturday night Terry Stotts pointed to previous iterations of the Blazers that had looked lost only to recover from nosedive in time to make the playoffs.

 

“I go back to the (2015-16) and the 16-17 seasons,” Stotts said. “We were seven games under .500 in January and we ended up with 44 wins. The next year we were 11 games under .500 on March 1 and we got to .500. So I don’t think we ever count ourselves out. Obviously we have an uphill road, but there’s a bunch of teams right now in the West that have uphill roads.”

 

That nostalgic trip down Salvaged Season Lane came before the Blazers -- playing without Hassan Whiteside -- were steamrolled by the Milwaukee Bucks. But even after losing for the seventh time in nine games by some miracle of parity the Blazers are still easily within striking distance of the final playoff spot in the West. With all that has gone wrong, the Blazers will wake up Sunday sitting in 10th place, trailing the Memphis Grizzlies by two games in the race for the final playoff spot in the West.

 

Of course this isn’t where the Blazers planned to be when the season started. A January meeting was supposed to be a possible Finals preview not a seemingly predetermined yawner. 

 

When training camp opened in September the team was talking about chasing championship rings. Instead four months later a combination of disastrous injury luck and a poorly conceived roster has landed the team here: at 16-24 facing a climb to even make the postseason let alone do anything once they get there.

 

“[We’re] trying to figure it out,” Damian Lillard said. “Trying to find a way. I think dealing with injuries, not playing at the level we want to play at consistently and just trying to find a way to get it done. We’re continuing to fight and we’re not coming out on the winning end like we would like to. So, it’s frustrating and we’ve just got to continue to battle.”

 

Like Stotts noted before the game, the Blazers have a not too distant history of late season rallies. They 2015-16 team stormed into the playoffs with a late season surge and snuck into the second round. The following year the Blazers looked lost past the All-Star Break before the Jusuf Nurkic trade helped rescue their playoff hopes. 

 

Perhaps Nurkic returns to save the Blazers season again this year. He has been eyeing a February return from a fractured left leg for nearly 11 months, and his presence on the court would be a welcomed addition in almost any capacity. Fellow injured big man Zach Collins could also return sometime in March, too. But even with hope and help on the horizon, the Blazers still have to tread water for at least another month or so.

 

After a loss to the Bucks that felt more inevitable than deflating, the Blazers face a strangely important home game against the 15-26 Charlotte Hornets on Monday night. If they’re going to repeat history and make a late season run to the postseason they can’t afford to drop home games to sub-.500 teams. Monday's meeting with Charlotte is doubly important considering the three-game trip against Western Conference playoff teams in Houston, Dallas and Oklahoma City that immediately follows.

 

The expectations in Rip City have shifted from championship hope to playoff push. The team has recalibrated its expectations on the fly. The target has moved from Larry O'Brien to reaching an 83rd game.

 

And yet Despite their flaws, that’s still a realistic option, and the knowledge that they’ve made similar runs it before can only help fuel a team desperately in need of something positive to point toward.

 

“I think our experience with getting into tough positions and battling our way out,” Lillard said. “Just through our togetherness and the culture that we’ve built and how we show up every day and do the work, that’s kind of led us out of it. We keep our minds on the things that we can improve on and we address that. We don’t step around it, and I think in the past, that’s been a big part of us coming out of it. 

 

“So that’s where we are right now – just trying to address the things that we aren’t doing well enough and not make excuses and just try to find a way and keep battling.”

Blazers miss shots, a golden opportunity against Pelicans

Blazers miss shots, a golden opportunity against Pelicans

Damian Lillard found himself wide open on the left wing. He took a rhythm dribble and calmly drained a three-pointer, finally hitting one in the midst of the worst shooting night of his career.

The only problem was that it didn’t count. The New Orleans Pelicans had taken a timeout and Lillard was lingering on the court hoping to find his shooting rhythm before heading to the Trail Blazers bench.

Lillard, who shot a career-worst 0-for-10 from three-point range, wasn’t alone in his shooting struggles. None of the Blazers could find the mark from deep as Portland finished 4-for-23 from beyond the arc. That was the catalyst for a troubling 102-94 home loss to the 8-23 Pelicans, who came in having lost 14 of 15.

“This was a game we should have won,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Given we didn’t shoot the ball pretty well tonight, and a lot of times that’s what gets us going, making shots and getting stops. The way that we play those shots usually go in. At least some of them. They didn’t go in tonight. It gave those guys confidence and they took advantage of it.”

The Blazers missed an opportunity on Monday, ending their four-game homestand at 3-1 despite facing all sub-.500 teams.

The Blazers (14-17) have been steadfastly positive despite a rocky season, and that was still the tone following the loss to the Pelicans. It was frustration more than anger, as they saw it this was a poor shooting night not a proof of some fatal.

Several players noted that missing a bunch of clean looks is different than playing without effort. Lillard and CJ McCollum, who was 2-for-10 from distance, both agreed the Blazers were unlucky as much as anything after playing decent defense and generating the types of shots they typically make.

But the missed opportunity is more about what is coming next than it is about what happen on the court Monday even. After sneaking past other struggling teams during an imperfect four-game winning streak, the Blazers head to Utah the day after Christmas to a face a talented Jazz team. It's a one game trip before they come back home to host the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday. It makes for two real tests after five games against opponents with losing records.

Following a home-heavy and matchup friendly December slate, the Blazers are heading facing a more daunting January with 9 of 16 away from home. The looming challenges make dropping a home game to the 8-23 Pelicans feel slightly more costly.

When the Blazers players filed out of the locker room they weren't dejected, but still left the arena headed for a two day holiday break knowing the let a winnable game slip away.

“It’s a couple things we could’ve did better tonight,” Anthony said. “But we lost. It’s not one we wanted to lose, and we’ll get ready for Utah."