The Trail Blazers have been searching for their rhythm everywhere lately, in long film sessions, whiteboard slapping from coaches, and identity challenging halftime speeches from players. The course correcting play they have been desperately looking for finally arrived on Thursday, coming in the form of the lowly Phoenix Suns and an All-Star point guard.
“I thought Dame set the tone with his leadership early,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said after the Blazers throttled the Suns 108-86 at the Moda Center. “He set the tone for the game and managed the game after that.”
Lillard made his first six shots and finished the first quarter with 15 points, three rebounds and three assists. The slumping Blazers (14-11), who had lost six of seven coming in, desperately needed a win, and Lillard made sure the lowly Phoenix Suns (4-21) never had a chance.
He outscored Phoenix 15-9 in the first quarter, and had more assists in the opening frame than the entire Phoenix team. When Jake Layman got rolling in the first quarter, it was Lillard who assisted three of his first four buckets, tossing him an alley-oop and setting him up for two three-pointers. Portland’s point guard had a hand in every part of the first quarter drubbing, guiding the Blazers to 34-9 lead heading into the second while virtually deciding the game.
“I just wanted to come out and be aggressive,” Lillard said. “Obviously they’re struggling as a team and we’ve been struggling. (It’s) a game on our home floor that we expect to win, but crazier things have happened in my career so I just wanted to come out and be aggressive and try to take control of the game early.”
Lillard has a tendency to feel out games, reading defensive coverages and setting up teammates in the opening minutes before ramping up his aggression and looking for his own offense late. Without his running mate CJ McCollum, who sat out Thursday with a sprained left ankle, Lillard wasted no time asserting himself.
“I thought he managed the game really well, got people involved, was aggressive when he needed to be but didn’t force too much,” Stotts said. “I just thought his overall floor game was his leadership. It’s not like anything he said, I thought [it was] his demeanor on the court and general overall floor play.”
Make no mistake the Suns are a bad team, and they played without their two best players in Devin Booker and TJ Warren. The Blazers likely would have dispatched Phoenix without Lillard making an early impact. However for a team that has slogged through numerous slow starts during a disheartening two weeks, Lillard’s early aggression displayed his understanding of the moment.
Leadership on Thursday looked like 25 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 27 minutes. Lillard didn’t need to challenge his teammates at halftime the same way he didn’t need to play in the fourth quarter. He had taken care of the game early.
Beating the NBA’s worst team wasn’t a cause for celebration. Although the Blazers did spend some of the postgame media session Thursday night joking about Layman’s new mustachioed look, there was a business-like tone following the blowout win.
Lillard knows that he won’t be judged by how easily he can score first quarter points on the Suns, and that his next test arrives quickly as the Minnesota Timberwolves come to the Moda Center on Saturday.
“We got the win, and did some good things,” Lillard said. “Now we gotta build on it going into a game against a team that’s playing really well. They played really well against us not too long ago on their floor, so it’ll be a good test for us to see if we can find ourselves going in the right direction.”