The four-month mark is quickly approaching.
Yes, it's been nearly four months since the United States and the NBA world was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, as the Trail Blazers along with 21 other NBA teams look to resume the 2019-20 season in the ‘Orlando bubble,’ there are still so many question marks, concerns, and so much preparation still to be done.
Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard is ready to help his team make the jump from the nine spot out West to that eighth and final playoff spot.
He's been happy with his teammate's commitment to staying in shape.
“I think that just from being in the gym and being around our team that it’s pretty obvious that guys have stayed active,” Lillard said during a Wednesday zoom call. “Everybody’s in pretty good shape. I think the only change… is that it’s real now. At first, it was kind of up in the air. ‘What’s going to be the format? Are we going to be involved?’… Once we knew that it was confirmed that we was coming back -- everybody started getting prepared."
Watching the coronavirus cases spike all over the country, but particularly seeing the numbers rise in Florida, is a cause for concern for the NBA.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said on a conference call earlier this week that the league is closely monitoring the situation in Florida and is working closely with health officials. Silver added that he and the league have not ruled out the possibility of the restart getting shut down or the chance of it not being completed.
Lillard discussed the safety measures the NBA is taking and mentioned that he can’t grade Commissioner Silver and the league just yet.
Not until they get to Orlando.
It’s a risk obviously. The fact that we’re going to be in a bubble, I think that it kind of knocks it down and limits the chance of us being exposed to everybody else outside of the bubble in Orlando. You know, which is causing the numbers to rise. So, I think it is a safer situation, but I also don’t think it’s possible for them to protect us 100 percent. I think everybody is going there understanding that…I’ve seen people staying inside their houses the entire time and then they go to the grocery store, come back home and basically do nothing and they still come in contact with it, so we’ll see when we cross that bridge, but I do not think there is a way to protect us 100 percent. -- Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard
[Listen to the latest Talkin’ Blazers Podcast with hosts NBA Champion Channing Frye and Emmy Award winner Dan Sheldon]
With only one back-to-back, here's how Portland’s regular season schedule shakes out:
- Friday, July 31 vs. Memphis Grizzlies (1:00p.m. Pacific Time)
- Sunday, Aug. 2 vs. Boston Celtics (12:30p.m. Pacific Time)
- Tuesday, Aug. 4 vs. Houston Rockets (6:00p.m. Pacific Time)
- Thursday, Aug. 6 vs. Denver Nuggets (5:00p.m. Pacific Time)
- Saturday, Aug. 8 vs. LA Clippers (10:00a.m. Pacific Time)
- Sunday, Aug. 9 vs. Philadelphia 76ers (3:30p.m. Pacific Time)
- Tuesday, Aug. 11 vs. Dallas Mavericks (2:00p.m. Pacific Time)
- Thursday, Aug. 13 vs. Brooklyn Nets (TBD)
Will there be a balancing act of feeling out how players’ bodies will react once games begin after such a long layoff?
For Lillard and the Blazers, there’s no time for that.
“This is basically an eight-game season,” Lillard explained. “And we starting off behind, so we gotta come in there and hit the ground running… We don’t have time to ease our way in. We don’t have time to try and figure stuff out. We gotta come in assertive and aggressive and just go after it. If we fail, we fail. But we got to at least go out there with that mentality of ‘We don’t have time just kind of ease into it.’”
Lillard continued, “It’s eight games, man. Everybody’s going to be rested. We can’t feel it out.”
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The Trail Blazers team captain is solely focusing on his team and not what other teams like Memphis and New Orleans must do to snag that final playoff spot in the West.
Portland currently sits in 9th place in the Western Conference standings, 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies. Sacramento and New Orleans are also 3.5 games behind Memphis.
I feel good about our chances,” Lillard said of making the postseason. “Like I said, getting [Jusuf Nurkic], getting Zach [Collins] back, we’re a different team with those guys. Everybody’s coming back rusty… It’s a neutral site. I feel like it’s fair. I really didn’t look at the schedule of who we play and all that stuff to make me feel any way. The only thing I asked for was the opportunity to make it [to the postseason] and we’ve been given that, so you know, we’re going to show up and do what we got to do.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts also discussed his team's slate of games, saying, “We’ve got to come to play. We’ve got Memphis right off the bat -- that’s a must-win. Obviously, we’re playing a lot of good teams on our schedule and the advantage to that is we are in ninth place now, so we’ve got to hold serve. I think we all feel like we have a good chance to get into the playoffs.”
Lillard reiterated what so many around the NBA have said over the past few weeks leading up to a resumption of play:
Teams are going to be on an even playing field.
Lillard said confidently, “I think it really helps that everybody is coming back rusty, for one. Nobody’s been playing.”
In 58 games played this season, Lillard was putting up MVP-type numbers, averaging 28.9 points, 7.8 assists, and 4.3 rebounds.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lillard took his family to Phoenix to get away for a couple of weeks, but since then, he has trained at his home gym and in recent weeks at the Blazers' practice facility.
Lillard’s training has changed over the past few months.
He admitted with a big smile on his face that he would “probably be tired as hell” if he played in a game right at this moment; but, he said he “could play in a game.” He just didn’t say, yes or no when asked if he was in game shape.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t ready to start training camp next week in Orlando.
Lillard said he “feels good.” He has been working out with a sense of paranoia.
But, it’s not as if this feeling of Lillard's is due to the safety measures of the virus, even though he has acknowledged there is risk while working out and playing basketball during the pandemic.
No, Lillard has a paranoid feeling because he’s trying trying to keep his body right to prevent injuries.
It was on Feb. 12 in Memphis, when the Blazers point guard suffered a right groin strain as Portland limped into the All-Star break. Lillard returned on Mar. 4 and played in four games before the NBA was suspended.
Now almost five months after suffering the groin injury and having more time to rehab, rest, and get his body right, Lillard sounds like a point guard who is ready to lead his team to the playoffs.
And, he is also ready to lead his conditioning with little paranoia.
“I feel pretty good,” Lillard said Wednesday. “Usually when I’m preparing, I’m doing conditioning, I’m lifting and doing individual workouts, like I have been doing. But, I think all this time I’ve been doing it like a little bit paranoid. I don’t want to be coming back and feeling like a bunch of bruises and putting myself in a position where I can get hurt. So, it’s been like -- lifting for power, lifting for agility, lifting for injury prevention --training while I’m in a vulnerable position to where I’m strong in the position... I’ve been doing conditioning at the end of my lifts to where my body is weak and I’m running on a treadmill with the incline at 40, where it’s basically like running straight up a hill.”
Lillard added, “I usually do that training in the morning. I come on to the court at the facility after that. My time has been 10:30 the whole time and then at night time… Our strength trainer for the team [Ben Kenyon], come to the house, six o’clock every night and we do some conditioning and some jump rope, treadmill, some core. So, I’ve been doing a lot, almost paranoid like.
“I don’t want to be the guy that when it’s time to come back I’m a step behind. Or I’m not feeling good or my body is aching from the lack of activity or stuff like that, so I’ve been on the move.”
Lillard and the Blazers will continue to be on the move when they head to Orlando next week. Teams will travel to Florida beginning July 7 with training camp to follow.