SAN ANTONIO -- When the doors opened Wednesday night to the locker room of what might be the most mercurial team in the NBA, Trail Blazers’ guard Damian Lillard was just getting around to the night’s final order of business.
With his feet soaking in a tub of ice and his eyes transfixed on a group chat with his cousins, Lillard felt a sudden urge.
He switched screens on his phone and scanned the night’s NBA scores, and as he turned to teammate CJ McCollum, he transposed himself from star performer to reporter.
“Wizards lost to Dallas … Minnesota lost … New Orleans lost …’’ Lillard said, naming some the teams fighting with Portland for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The most important score of the night went without saying: The Blazers’ gutty 110-106 victory at San Antonio that was as stunning as it was impressive.
It was stunning because it came on the heels of a hideous 100-77 loss the night before in New Orleans, and it was impressive because it came after repelling an MVP-like performance from Kawhi Leonard, the return of LaMarcus Aldridge and the relentless chaos usually imposed by the 52-win Spurs.
It was also another reminder of how unpredictable, and dangerous, this Portland team can be as the season’s final 15 games plays out, a feeling that gained momentum after Lillard reported the scores to McCollum.
“I was like, man, let’s see who else played tonight … and a few teams we would like to see lose tonight, lost,’’ Lillard said. “We are at that point now – Who won? Who lost? – especially the times when we win.’’
The win moved Portland (30-37) within two games of Denver (32-35) for the final playoff spot in the West, while remaining one game ahead of Dallas (29-38) and two ahead of Minnesota (28-39).
The 2-1 start on their crucial five-game trip probably didn’t unfold the way Portland envisioned, but then again, not many this season have been able to wrap their minds around the mystery that is the Blazers.
“When you figure us out,’’ a Blazers assistant coach said on his way out of the locker room, “let us know.’’
As the Blazers’ late-season surge has been unfolding, so too has an interesting dynamic between Lillard and newcomer Jusuf Nurkic.
As Lillard on Wednesday was studying his phone and later reporting scores in the locker room, Nurkic sat in front of his own locker, wrapped only in a towel, repeatedly shaking his head.
He was a central figure in the Blazers’ ability to repel the Spurs’ fourth-quarter assault, but it was also painfully evident the 22-year-old center was not yet ready to shoulder the full responsibility of such an important moment.
Nurkic had 10 fourth quarter points and in a frenetic free-for-all, he chased down a key rebound with 21 seconds left. But he also had two crucial turnovers, missed two crunch-time free throws, and couldn’t connect on some close-range shots that could have buried the Spurs.
Hence, the head shaking.
“I’m learning out there,’’ Nurkic said.
Moments later, as he headed to the shower, Nurkic passed by Lillard, who was still soaking his feet in ice. Lillard stuck out his hand and the two quickly slapped hands once, twice, three times before ending with an emphatic fourth connection. Both broke out in laughter, tickled at how such an intricate exchange could be executed with such little time together.
Since Nurkic arrived in Portland in a mid-February trade, Lillard has studied him, and gone out of his way to not only embrace him, but as he put it, “mold” him.
“With him being young, I’m kind of able to mold him to what I want to do, and the things in how he can help our team more,’’ Lillard said.
Some of that is telling Nurkic to hold his screen longer on pick-and-rolls. And some of that is reminding him to get more power and balance on his inside shot by jumping off two feet, not one.
But he is also helping mold Nurkic emotionally. One of the knocks on Nurkic in Denver was he had a tendency to pout, or obsess when things didn’t go his way, and Lillard has been keen to the warning signs.
“I stay positive with him,’’ Lillard said. “If he throws a turnover, I grab his hand (and say) ‘It’s all right. You are good. It ain’t your fault.’ He wants to do so well and the thing that is great about him is he takes ownership. When he throws ball away he is like ‘I’m messing up’ …’’
Lillard is convinced that Nurkic’s heart is in the right place – he has shown he cares about winning and he wants to play a team game – so Lillard’s focus has been on Nurkic’s mind.
“It’s my job to be positive with him and to continue to encourage him,’’ Lillard said.
Lillard’s attention and positivity has seemingly liberated Nurkic. He often says how he has never played with such a leader, and how a teammate has never inspired him like Lillard. Meanwhile, Nurkic’s big smile and playfulness have become part of the fabric of the Blazers locker room.
On Wednesday, when Nurkic was asked about his inbounds pass with 53 seconds that went into the Spurs’ bench, he grinned and looked across the locker room at McCollum, who was going through the buffet line.
“I don’t know,’’ Nurkic said, raising his voice so McCollum could hear, “ask CJ what happened.’’
McCollum was the intended recipient of the pass, which he called a “Meyers Leonard chest pass,” but he likened their communication to that of a quarterback and receiver.
“I stopped,’’ McCollum replied back to Nurkic, “and you threw it as a go-route.’’
Nurkic nodded, his smile still wide.
“He’s going to catch it next time,’’ Nurkic said to reporters, before returning his attention back to McCollum. “You almost made me get on Shaqtin’ A Fool.’’
McCollum and Lillard looked at each other and laughed.
“Oh, you gonna be on there anyway,’’ Lillard said of the TNT bloopers segment originated by Shaquille O'Neal.
The Blazers have won six of their last eight games, which includes three road victories and quality wins at the Spurs, at Oklahoma City and at home against the Thunder.
If one thing has defined the push, it has been the exceptional play of Lillard, but there is also a growing subplot: a decided growth from some of the Blazers’ role players such as Noah Vonleh, Allen Crabbe, Al-Farouq Aminu and Meyers Leonard.
Vonleh suddenly looks more comfortable and that has translated into some assertive play underneath that has resulted in dunks and flurries of rebounds. Never was that on display more than Wednesday against the Spurs when Vonleh had 12 points, six rebounds and three assists in a season-high 26 minutes.
Lillard remarked on Vonleh’s confidence, and noted how his strong play in the paint has given defenders two options:
“They either have to foul or get dunked on right now,’’ Lillard said of Vonleh’s defenders. “That’s the kind of presence we need to have.’’
Crabbe is also providing a presence as he has become more involved in the offense, in part because of a meeting to brainstorm plays with coach Terry Stotts and McCollum earlier in the month, and in part because of a revamped hold-nothing-back attitude in taking his shot.
Leonard has also played better of late, perhaps because of a recent visit in Portland with former Blazers assistant Kim Hughes. In the locker room following Tuesday's loss to New Orleans, Leonard's phone buzzed from a text message. It was from Hughes.
"That's my man,'' Leonard said.
They stay in touch often, but recently Hughes was in Portland and the two visited, after which Leonard said his mind was in a better place. Is his improved play a result of his recent interactions with Hughes?
"I guess you could say that,'' Leonard said.
Aminu, meanwhile, continues to make key contributions – be it with his shot or his defense – that go a long way in making up for his Tasmanian Devil moments of carelessness.
“Chief made the play of the game,’’ Lillard said Wednesday, noting Aminu’s rebound of Kawhi Leonard’s miss with 43 seconds left and the Blazers holding a 104-102 lead.
But nobody and nothing has been more important to the Blazers during this push for the playoffs than Lillard, whose impact as a leader and a performer has been substantial, if not staggering.
“When you the leader of the team, you try not to do it yourself, but lead the charge,’’ Lillard said. “You have to inspire the group, be a leader of men, and you do that by your actions before you say ‘Oh, let’s go!’ You have to give them something to get behind. That’s all I’m trying to do.’’
On Friday, the Blazers will get back to work, with a practice in Atlanta that will include the return of Evan Turner from a broken right hand suffered Feb. 7.
Stotts said “the hope” is that Turner will be a full participant, but the coach didn’t want to speculate on whether Turner will play Saturday against the Hawks (37-30), and he has said he is unsure if Turner will regain his starting role.
As encouraging as the Blazers’ win over San Antonio was, it didn’t come without warts, which will surely be addressed in the Friday practice. Once again, the Blazers were shaky in the final minute with their decisions and execution, giving credence to the theory that Portland -- in its true mercurial ways – can’t help but make games interesting.
“We always do,’’ McCollum said. “You want to see a long game in the fourth quarter? Watch us play.’’
And so the final 15 games await, figuring to bring more intrigue, more ups-and-downs, and more mystery. And like Lillard on Wednesday, we all figure to be watching the scores.
Next up: Blazers at Atlanta, 3 p.m. Saturday (CSN)