They are the NBA''s second-highest scoring backcourt, but Trail Blazers guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum say they have something else working for them besides their slashing drives and sharp shooting.
They also have a weapon teams can’t defense: a friendship that translates onto the court.
“When you have a relationship off the court, you mesh better on the court and have more trust,’’ McCollum said. “And you are not afraid to hold each other accountable. We just have an understanding of each other.’’
Added Lillard: “CJ is my brother, man. In the NBA you will see a lot of friendships that people make out to be more than they are, or what they want to believe they are. But me and CJ, we are really good friends. And that makes a difference when you are comfortable with someone and you want the best for them.’’
The seeds of this bond were planted before McCollum reached the NBA. Lillard, then a rookie with Portland, would text and talk with McCollum during his senior year at Lehigh.
In the two-plus years since McCollum has joined Lillard in Portland, the bond has taken root. Like the past two offseasons, they worked out together this summer in Portland, often followed by excursions to Oaks Park to roller skate and nights at various Portland area bowling alleys. They also vacationed together in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and became so close that their mothers have become the best of friends.
“They are probably hanging out right now, as we speak,’’ Lillard said of their moms.
Neither Lillard (25.3 scoring average) nor McCollum (21.4 points) could have predicted such a strong bond after they started texting four years ago, but there have been some prescient moments.
During the 2013 NBA Draft, Lillard texted an emoji of two eyes to McCollum as the Blazers’ No. 10 pick neared.
“And I didn’t even know we were going to pick him,’’ Lillard said.
Then, after the Blazers drafted McCollum, he suffered a broken foot in training camp. But after he showed flashes when he returned to the court, McCollum remembers Lillard making a bold prediction his rookie season.
“I had a few good games, and he told me: ‘Trust me. It’s going to be me and you the next eight to 12 years,’ ’’ McCollum remembered. “He said, ‘It’s going to be us two. Watch.’ ’’
A trust to get out of the way
So how can roller skating and vacationing together help on the court? How do dinners with each other’s family and bowling alley battles translate to better play?
With Lillard and McCollum, it’s more about a foundation of trust and a feeling of support.
Seldom do they play off each other – more than 70 percent of McCollum’s baskets are unassisted – but each controls the ball and can dictate the pace and flow of the game.
So when McCollum is feeling it, like during his 22-point first quarter in the season-opener against New Orleans, or is on point like he was in Utah when he hit his first seven shots, Lillard has no problem getting out of his way.
And when Lillard gets rolling like he did during a 15-point third quarter in Minnesota, McCollum doesn’t feel the need to interject to make his own statement.
“I’m genuinely happy for him when he does well,’’ McCollum said. “When he gets it going, I have no problem saying ‘Go. Let him go.’ There’s no ego involved because we understand there is a bigger picture. People get caught up in the stats, but it’s about winning, and what’s right for the team.’’
After the season opener, when McCollum had a career-high 37, Lillard was moved.
“Because we have that friendship, I truly want to see him do what he did tonight,’’ Lillard said. “I want to see things like that from him, and he wants to see the same from me. So I think because of what we want to see happen for each other, and what we want to do together for this team, it could be special. And I think it will be.’’
Sometimes, their trust and support is more direct.
“I remember in Utah,’’ McCollum said. “I didn’t shoot for like 10 minutes, and he came up and was like, ‘Come on! I need you!’
And other times, it is just a feel. For two and a half years they have worked out together, practicing drives and kick-out passes to each other on the perimeter, playing one-on-one. So even though this is the first season they have played together full-time, they know the others’ game inside-and-out.
“After all those years working out together, we have an idea,’’ McCollum said. “I know when he’s ready to shoot. He knows when I’m ready to drive.’’
It’s one of the reasons why Lillard and McCollum are each averaging at least 20 points, the only backcourt in the NBA to do so. They are also trying to become the first Blazers’ backcourt to average 20 points each for the season.
Lillard figures the better you know a person, the easier it is to succeed next to them.
“I know what type of person he is on the inside,’’ Lillard said. “I know who I’m going to war with -- a guy who is not going to back down. So that makes it easy.’’
'A lot in common'
Their friendship began with a respectful eye in 2011, when Lillard was at Weber State and McCollum at Lehigh. They kept an eye on each other as they were see-sawing week-to-week as the nation’s leading scorer (Lillard finished second, McCollum sixth).
Then, after Lillard was drafted No. 6 overall in 2012, the two met through a mutual friend. McCollum was already up-to-speed on Lillard, having watched his “License to Lillard” workout videos, and Lillard knew about McCollum from his 30-point performance against Duke in the NCAA Tournament.
Occasional texts turned into periodic phone conversations. They found they were both close to their moms. They both broke their foot in college, so they compared rehabilitation stories and theories. And they talked about making it to the NBA out of a small school.
“I just felt like we had a lot in common,’’ McCollum said. “Small school, broken foot, close with mom. He had the same family and core values, and that is very important to me.’’
By the time Lillard sent McCollum the eyes emoji on draft night in 2013, it was as if they were already teammates.
“When we took him, I already knew him, just because of how long I had been following him, and the amount of time we talked,’’ Lillard said. “So as soon as he came here, I was pulling for him and I could see him pulling for me.’’
Lillard says the support he gets from McCollum is welcomed, and appreciated, but was not meant to reflect on any of his previous teammates, particularly LaMarcus Aldridge.
“I mean, people can take it how they want to,’’ Lillard said. “I know where it’s coming from: Me and CJ were friends before we became teammates. So what I’m saying is, that means a lot to what we can do together on the court because we have a tight friendship.
“People are going to say everything that LaMarcus says, he’s talking about me,’’ Lillard said. “And they are going to say everything I say, I’m talking about LaMarcus. The bottom line is me and LaMarcus never had an issue. But they are going to make that an issue for the next year and a half.’’
In the meantime, Lillard and McCollum will continue going shopping together on the road. Continue to eat lunches and dinners together in Portland. And continue to enjoy the cooking of the other’s mom.
And somehow, some way, they figure that friendship will continue to translate into them being one of the top scoring backcourts in the NBA. So far, only Golden State's Stephen Curry (33.3 points) and Klay Thompson (15.2) have a higher combined scoring average for a backcourt.
“I don’t see why we can’t sustain it,’’ McCollum said. “With us, you have to pick your poison. You can’t double team us, you can’t … I’m not going to talk about it. They will see for themselves. They will see.’’