Mike Richman

Trail Blazers push for the postseason isn't getting easier

Trail Blazers push for the postseason isn't getting easier

Down 24 with less than four minutes before halftime, the Trail Blazers looked like they were headed for a demoralizing blowout. Portland’s porous defense had few answers for a hot-shooting Boston Celtics team that appeared primed to run away with one.

Yet despite the early onslaught from Jayon Tatum and the rest of the Celtics rangey wings, the Blazers didn’t buckle. Instead Damian Lillard donned his cape, emerging from the halftime locker room as the hero that has saved the Blazers hopes on countless occasions. 

The heroics just weren't quite enough. Lillard scored 22 of his team-high 30 points in the final two quarters and not only brought the Blazers back from a massive deficit he even propelled them to a late lead before the Celtics regrouped and held on for a win. Portland had four possessions to tie or take the lead inside the final two minutes and came up short on all of them.

“We dug ourselves a deep hole against a really good team,” Lillard said. “Any time you do that your chance of winning is going to be pretty slim. I think we showed we’re here for business by how we responded, and how we gave ourselves a chance to win. At this point that’s all we can ask for. We didn’t play a very good first half, and we could’ve easily have folded and laid down and just said, ‘It’s a bad day.’ But we didn’t do that.”

If the win over Memphis on Friday was a glimpse of what might be possible for the Blazers playoff push, Sunday’s loss to the Celtics was a sobering reminder of how difficult their path forward remains.

Heading into the NBA restart in Orlando Lillard was vocal that all he wanted was for his team to have a legitimate chance. They got that, and on Sunday Lillard tried his best to make sure the Blazers didn’t waste the opportunity.

After winning their first seeding game Friday, the Blazers were in control of their own postseason destiny. But with their loss Sunday and a San Antonio victory, Portland has now slipped to tenth place in the West with more obstacles between them and a playoff berth.

The loss to the Celtics was a clear illustration of the Blazers flaws and as well as their strengths. Lillard was magnificent, Jusuf Nurkic continues to be an anchor on both ends and Gary Trent Jr. seems to get better each time he steps on the court. And yet there they were down 24 unable to slow down one of the best teams in the league. With games looming against Houston, Denver, the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia, the schedule isn’t going to soften up.

This team has the talent to forge a path to the postseason, and Sunday was evidence of the challenges that path will no doubt pose.

Trail Blazers postseason mentality effectively began with Grizzlies

Trail Blazers postseason mentality effectively began with Grizzlies

While the league had affectionately termed it a “seeding game,” the Trail Blazers' Friday evening showdown with the Memphis Grizzlies certainly looked and felt like postseason basketball.

In the week leading up to the game, the Blazers acknowledged the importance of their first seeding game. And even prior to tip off the controversy-shy Terry Stotts labeled the meeting with Memphis a “must-win” in his pregame comments.

“This is playoff basketball for us and for me,” Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony said. “This is something that we’ve been looking forward to for a long time, since the stoppage of our season."

The stakes were obvious, the Blazers trailed Memphis by 3.5 games, needing to stay within four games of the eighth place Grizzlies to force a possible play-in tournament and earn a shot at the playoffs. A loss would push them to 4.5 games back, making for a steep climb in their final seven games in Orlando.

“Everybody knew how important this game was,” Stotts said afterwards. “To try and sugarcoat and say ‘We don’t need this’ -- This is playoff basketball for us, and you need that pressure. And the pressure is going to continue so you can’t shy away from it.”

The Blazers certainly didn’t shy away. In a game that felt like the postseason, the Blazers took an important step toward making the playoffs.

They hung through the back and forth contest to pull out an overtime win. But if the chaos and emotion on the court didn’t make this feel like a postseason showdown, Stotts’ shortened postseason-esque rotation gave it a true playoff feel. The Blazers rolled out an eight man rotation with Hassan Whiteside, Gary Trent Jr. and Mario Hezonja as the only reserves to see action alongside starters Anthony, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic.

That meant second-year guard Anfernee Simons never got off the bench, and high-energy options Nassir Little and Wenyen Gabriel kept their warm-ups on. It isn’t surprising that Stotts shrunk his playing rotation down, but it was a clear admission of how important this game was to Portland. 

The much anticipated Whiteside-Nurkic pairing got only a brief first half cameo as Stotts didn’t go back to the supersized look after a first quarter trial run. Some of that was foul trouble across Portland’s frontline, but mostly it was because the team was ditching experiments in favor of known quantities.

The eight players who did see action rewarded Stotts’ trust. Hezonja was a spark in the first half while Trent Jr. picked up where he left off back in March with solid shooting and dogged defense, particularly in overtime against Grizzlies star point guard Ja Morant.

“Especially in the first half, Gary was scoring and Rio played under control and made some good plays; defensively Gary’s been really solid,” Stotts said. “But playing eight guys and those guys being productive off the bench -- you can throw Hassan in there, too -- it's that they play well with the starters. It’s a team game so you gotta have that contribution.”

The bench provided needed support to the Blazers starting lineup that carried much of the load. CJ McCollum was brilliant, Jusuf Nurkic made up for 400-plus days between real games by filling the box score in every manner possible and Carmelo Anthony kept the Blazers playoff hopes with two massive three-pointers at the end of regulation and game-icing free throws in overtime.

So while this was a “seeding game” in name and the Blazers still have seven more before the actual postseason will begin, this looked and felt like the biggest game of the year. Because it was.

"We’ve been preparing for this, especially this game," Anthony said. "I look forward to these nights. This is a different mindset that you have to have. Some teams have the luxury of kinda feeling their way through and getting through it, but not for us, and you saw the intensity tonight.”

Trail Blazers games in an empty arena could be a possibility

Trail Blazers games in an empty arena could be a possibility

While the NBA world is weighing how the league and its teams might address the Covid-19 outbreak, the Trail Blazers are taking a wait and see approach.

The league and the Board of Governors are considering a variety of options that could help limit the spread of the virus, which could include postponing games or playing in arenas without fans.

The Blazers are scheduled to host the Memphis Grizzlies at the Moda Center on Thursday and are likely awaiting word from the league and the state of Oregon before announcing further precautions. On Tuesday, the NBA instituted modified media access rules which were put into immediate effect to limit the contact between team personnel and reporters. However, it’s nearly certain that further precautions are on the horizon. 

“I think it’s just as different for us as it is for every American,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said on Tuesday night. “I mean it’s no different for us than anybody else. We’re taking the same precautions, obviously there are things in place that limit contact, but things that we’re going through are the same things that every American is going through as far as precaution and concern.”

The NCAA tournament is set to start next week with only essential staff and limited family members in attendance inside the arenas. The Golden State Warriors will host the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday at the Chase Center in San Francisco in a game that will not be attended by fans.

“I don't know. I guess, if that time comes, if that's something we have to do then we'll worry about it then,” Blazers forward Trevor Ariza said when asked about the possibility of playing games without fans in attendance.

The Oregon Health Authority announced Tuesday Multnomah County’s first case of coronavirus. The state now has 15 reported cases of the virus in seven different Oregon counties.

Trail Blazers find themselves with a 'great opportunity' for a playoff push

Trail Blazers find themselves with a 'great opportunity' for a playoff push

If the Trail Blazers are going to achieve their playoff dreams, they will need to string together a bunch of nights just like Wednesday.

With Damian Lillard back in the lineup the Blazers cruised to a relatively uneventful win over at the Moda Center. Lillard showed no ill effects of the groin injury that sidelined him for the previous six games and the Blazers took care of business against the lottery bound Washington Wizards..

"Every win is important,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said prior to the game. “We got to go on a run. You do the math, we have to go on a run. I’m not going to say a number that we need to get to, but I think we have to go into every game thinking it’s a game that we have to have.”

The Blazers didn’t lose much ground in the playoff race with Lillard out, but they didn’t climb anywhere either. It’s been a bumpy road without Lillard, but not much has shifted in the standings during Portland’s 2-4 run without its star point guard.

They entered the All-Star break four games back of the Memphis Grizzlies in ninth place in the Western Conference, and after beating the Wizards they find themselves in ninth place in the West, three and half games behind Memphis.

Now the Blazers find themselves with a golden opportunity to climb back into the playoff picture, heading into a make or break stretch with four more games coming against teams at or below .500, including a home meeting with Memphis next Thursday. If it’s going to happen for the Blazers, it has to happen now. 

After convincing wins over shorthanded Orlando and underwhelming Washington, the Blazers travel to Phoenix for a game against the Suns (24-38) on Friday. That’s followed by a quick turnaround for a home game Saturday against Sacramento (27-34). The Suns are back in Portland next Tuesday ahead of Thursday’s all-important meeting with the Grizzlies (31-31).

This next week will likely decide the Blazers’ postseason fate. Things get decidedly tougher following the game against the Grizzlies with home games against Western Conference playoff teams and a six-game road trip looming immediately after. But the Blazers are staring at a legitimate chance to rack up six straight wins, and salvage a postseason berth in a season that has looked lost on several occasions. 

The Blazers are imperfect. Even with a soft schedule there are no guaranteed wins ahead and any slip ups are potentially harrowing losses. They stayed afloat long enough to keep the playoffs in sight. The next test in swimming to shore.

"It's a great opportunity,” Lillard said. "But we've been in this position before where it’s gut-check time and every little thing matters. Everybody on the roster matters. How we prepare, what our mentality is, how we’re coming into each game individually.  Obviously we want to put them together, but it has to be one game at a time.” 

“After that huge win in Orlando I thought, we came into this game with a business mentality. We didn’t look at the record, or we got a home game, or none of that. It was like, 'Alright, we got one, let's turn that to two. We got this one. Now let’s go into the next game. Let's turn it to three.' I think if we build like that, we'll find ourselves in a good position when these 19 games are up."

A glimmer of playoff hope in pregame shooting routine

A glimmer of playoff hope in pregame shooting routine

The most important scene inside the Moda Center on Tuesday night happened well before the actual game.

Before Jayson Tatum dismantled the Trail Blazers defense, before CJ McCollum took multiple shots to the head from Boston Celtics defenders, and before Portland lost for the fourth time in its past five games, there was a brief glimmer of hope.

More than 90 minutes before tip-off Damian Lillard took the court to go through a pregame shooting routine. Assistant coach Dale Osbourne fed him basketballs as he went worked through a series of shots, starting in the mid-range and working out, hitting each spot around the arc and then stepping further back to cash in a few 35-footers.

Donning a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt and a bright yellow pair of his own signature sneakers, Lillard, who has missed three straight games with a right groin strain, went through his typical pregame routine at maybe 70 percent speed. Ironically, he couldn’t go through his normal post-up routine with video coordinator Jon Yim because Yim is dealing with a sore back. No one is completely healthy this time of year in the NBA.

While Lillard going through something that approximates a normal warm-up was a welcomed sign. He wasn’t alone on the court. While Lillard circled the arc from the deep left corner working back towards the right side, he had to navigate Zach Collins who was going through his own workout with assistant coach Jim Moran.

Collins, who hasn’t played since Oct. 26 after undergoing surgery to repair the labrum in his left shoulder, was going through a decidedly more strenuous routine than Lillard. He worked through dribble handoffs, pick and pops, and spot up shooting with Moran, closing the routine with 20 three-pointers, five free throws and sealing it with a reverse dunk.

By the end of the night, as the Blazers trudged out of the arena following a never-in-doubt loss to a superior opponent, it was easy to look past the pregame routines of two guys that ended up watching the game in suits. The team the Blazers trotted out against the Celtics is not a playoff caliber group, but if there is hope for Portland to mount a serious push for the final playoff spot in the West, it was getting jumpers up at 5:30 on Tuesday night.

Lillard will travel with the team on their upcoming three-game trip to Indiana, Atlanta and Orlando. He is likely to return in the relatively near future, either at the end of the road trip or soon thereafter. The Blazers desperately need him back in the lineup, but they will be cautious in rushing their franchise leader back onto the court.

“Health is the first priority. That’s pretty easy,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “Dame knows his body. I don’t think we would put him out there if we didn’t feel like he was healthy. But his health is the first priority, regardless.”

Collins’ return isn’t as imminent. He says that he meets with the team’s medical staff daily as they monitor his rehabilitation process, and he insists that returning in mid-to-late March is “very realistic.”

As long as we’re peddling hope, add Jusuf Nurkic to the list. The Blazers center, who fractured his left leg last March and has missed the entire, will make the trip east with the team this week as well. While the Blazers are being extremely coy, if not downright secretive about what Nurkic is doing on the court, Stotts said that Nurkic will go through some type of on-court workout even if he doesn’t formally join the team’s practice during the road trip.

Help might be on the horizon, some of it will even be on the team plane, but there is still waiting and uncertainty before it joins the rest of the Blazers back on the court.

With the current available roster, the Blazers’ playoff hopes are thin. They trail the Memphis Grizzlies by three games for eighth seed with 23 games left in the regular season. But Portland is also just a game and a half ahead of 13th place Phoenix with Sacramento, San Antonio and New Orleans sandwiched between them in a suddenly very tight postseason scramble.

The pregame scene delivered a moment of hope in a season that desperately needs some. The most important figures in the Blazers playoff dreams didn’t wear jerseys on Tuesday night although there is reason to believe they will soon. Once the game started and the Blazers were handed another loss that hope dissipated quickly. The mood in the locker room was a sober acceptance of the team’s difficult position.

“It’s our reality,” CJ McCollum said. “So we’ve got to figure out how to get as many wins as possible starting in Indiana and progressing forward. I don’t know how many we’ve got … 20 games left, 21 games left? 23 ... so we’ve go to win the majority of them to give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs.”

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.”