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.”