To understand how the Trail Blazers have become the hottest team in the NBA and the biggest surprise in the league, you have to venture to places some on the roster would just as soon forget.
The fourth quarter against Detroit, when the Blazers lost a 15 point lead while being outscored 41-11. The last-second three-point heave in Houston by Corey Brewer to force overtime . A last-second putback by Zach Randolph in Memphis. A stinging home loss to Dallas after a late Dirk Nowitzki basket. A beat down in Oklahoma City. And wins that slipped away in Milwaukee and Cleveland.
It was a cruel, hard-luck start to the season, complete with a seven-game losing streak in November, and a five-game losing streak in December. But they were streaks laced with lessons, bitter as they were.
“We had to have that experience, that bad taste in our mouth,’’ Damian Lillard said of the early season hardship. “It’s that simple. Sometimes you just have to go through stuff.’’
Through those early season trials, they learned about themselves on and off the court. There were late-game issues on the court, but a developing bond off the court. And a sloppiness with the ball on the court was in stark contrast to their work ethic off the court.
Along the way, an informal credo surfaced among the team: Trust the process.
The results were not coming, but the players could feel and see progress and improvement.
“You go through what we went through, and you are bound to grow from it,’’ Lillard said. “At the time, you are pissed off and don’t want to think about that, but you realize it’s a process. When you have a young team, you have to go through stuff like that.
“Now, as we are winning these games and have gotten rolling, it’s because of situations we’ve already gone through.’’
Amid the frustrating whirlwind of miracle shots and late-game futility, the Blazers those first two months were a team that was growing closer. They texted each other. Dined with each other. And more than anything, they forged a work ethic behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, Terry Stotts and his coaching staff were evaluating, tinkering, and calculating who, what and where this team was best equipped to succeed.
Now, the team with the NBA’s lowest salary has won five in a row, 10 of 11 and 14 of 17. The team who was picked by oddsmakers to finish with less than 27 wins after losing four of its five starters, finds itself 29-27 and in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
It is a mid-season awakening, one whose shine was hard to see that December night when Lillard and the Blazers returned home from a blowout loss in New Orleans. As he approached the front door of his Lake Oswego home that night, Lillard today remembers it being the low point of his season.
“I remember getting home and thinking, dang,’’ Lillard said. “Why can’t we just get a break?’’
Turns out, the Blazers didn’t need a break. They just needed time.
On Dec. 12 against New York, the Blazers lost 112-110, squandering an eight-point lead entering the fourth quarter and running the Blazers’ record in games decided by five points or less to 1-8.
The Knicks loss highlighted a developing trend for the team: a stagnated offense late and mind-boggling lapses on defense, particularly in transition.
Fast forward to Sunday night, against Utah, when the Blazers won a 115-111 knock-down, drag out contest against the Jazz that featured 12 lead changes and 13 ties.
It was the fifth consecutive win for the Blazers in games decided by five points or less and featured gritty defensive stands and an offense that remained fluid even when running into dead ends.
The defensive improvements are a result of detailed coaching that was applied after the schedule afforded a string of practices in Tualatin. Starting with a Jan. 2 practice, the Blazers emphasized perimeter defense, where guard and wings pressure, slap and harass ball handlers.
Meanwhile, the offense has become refined, in part because Lillard is better acclimated to trapping defenses and in part because players better know their roles.
Al-Farouq Aminu has toned down his wild one-on-one flurries. Maurice Harkless no longer tries to create, but instead focuses on cutting to the basket, and aggressively pursuing rebounds. And the tandem of Lillard and CJ McCollum continued to work in harmony, sometimes with Lillard initiating the action and other times McCollum creating his own shot.
“We had to learn each other,’’ Lillard said.
Nobody knows if the Blazers will be able to maintain this hot streak. Ten of their 15 games in March are on the road, and 10 of those games are against teams currently headed to the playoffs.
But from the start, this team has shown an unwavering belief in themselves.
After the victory over Utah on Sunday, when Lillard talked about the importance of experiencing the lows of the early season, I went home and opened up my computer. I studied my transcribed interviews from the locker room throughout the season and was amazed.
Dotted throughout some of the Blazers’ lowest of lows, key players always steered the conversation toward believing they were on the right track.
It was Dec. 18 and the Trail Blazers had just lost in Orlando. It would be the second of what would eventually be a seven-game losing streak and Lillard was becoming irritated with a line of questioning suggesting the Blazers were beginning to embark on the struggles so many expected them to encounter this season.
“I mean, I like it. I like it,’’ Lillard said of the adversity. “I mean, it’s an opportunity for us to grow, man … we’ve lost two in a row now and it’s not the end of the world. In the West it’s close. We are still maybe one, two games out of 8th place and we are not playing well. When we do start playing well, and we do start making more shots and we do start defending more consistently, that’s when people will see the growth.
“But right now it’s easy to say it’s getting tough, that they are in the thick of (adversity), and they’ve lost two games. That’s the easy thing to do. But our vibe is still the same: we still laugh with each other, we still practice hard together, we still go into games thinking we can win. And that’s the bottom line.’’
On Dec. 7 in Milwaukee, after the Blazers blew a five-point lead with under a minute left, Gerald Henderson was one of the last to leave the locker room. It was the sixth straight loss by the Blazers in a game decided by five points or less.
“I’ve been on teams in similar situations, where you have to learn how to win,’’ Henderson said. “You have to learn how to come up with plays. If we can pull it together, we are going to look back at games like this and say we learned from it.’’
And on Dec. 21, in Atlanta, after the Blazers lost while playing without Lillard and CJ McCollum, Mason Plumlee stood in the locker room and announced progress, never mind the four-game losing streak .
“We’ve improved. We’ve improved,’’ Plumlee insisted. “Again, I’m sitting here talking after a loss, but we improved tonight.’’
When 12:15 p.m. rolled around Monday, signaling the end of Blazers practice, few on the team took it as the end to their day.
In fact, three of the four baskets on the practice courts were still occupied.
On one basket, newcomer Brian Roberts took jump shots with assistant Jay Triano. On another basket, Meyers Leonard had long ago sweated through his shirt as he worked with assistant David Vanterpool on reading close outs from a defender. And on another basket, Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Gerald Henderson engaged in a shooting contest under the supervision of assistants Nate Tibbetts and Jim Moran.
On the sideline, youngsters Cliff Alexander and Noah Vonleh observed. From inside the weight room, elastic bands stretch and iron clanged well into the afternoon.
“I’ve never been on a team where everybody stays after practice,’’ Harkless said. “It’s great. Everybody on this team is about growing. Everybody wants to get better. You see it every time you guys come in here – guys staying late, guys competing. It’s fun.’’
It is a collection of gym rats, and Lillard says their affinity for each other, and the game, has created a perfect storm for improvement. Nobody is content with working only in practice, and nobody minds the company of the other to stay long after practice.
On Monday, Roberts finished his shooting 45 minutes after practice. Leonard an hour after. And Aminu and Henderson about 75 minutes. Nearly 90 minutes after practice, Vonleh was still around, playfully hoisting shots with Vanterpool.
The scene Monday was not unlike the end of any other practice.
“This is the time we put in,’’ Lillard said, sitting on the side, pointing to the activity still on the court. “You see this every day. Everybody is working.’’
It’s why Lillard said he was so confident that night in Orlando, when he insisted people would soon see the growth in these Blazers.
“When you have a group of guys that puts in time like this, you gotta believe,’’ Lillard said. “When you see this every day, you know it has to work out at some point.’’
Shortly before the All-Star Break, Gerald Henderson yelled at Meyers Leonard during a game at Houston. Leonard was late in setting a screen, which bogged down a play, and later resulted in Leonard being pulled from the game.
After the game, Lillard pulled aside Leonard.
“Gerald was really frustrated with me,’’ Leonard remembered. “But Dame after the game reminded me what we talked about at the beginning of the season: Sometimes people are going to have to jump people. On this team, there’s a level of trust where everybody holds each other accountable. That’s part of us being a team.’’
There have been some key coaching decisions, and some prominent development, which have led to the Blazers’ emergence, but perhaps nothing has been as important or powerful than this team’s chemistry.
The team has group text messages, which sometimes extend beyond an hour, with players contributing jokes, videos, or dinner arrangements.
During one off day this season, Leonard, Lillard, Ed Davis and CJ McCollum went to a local restaurant and had dinner and played games, capturing a shooting competition between Lillard and Leonard on video.
And during the holidays, veteran Chris Kaman bought a gift for every member of the team, ranging from Apple watches to a custom made knife.
“The behind the scenes stuff, the locker room stuff – trust me – it translates to the court,’’ Leonard said. “The building of actual friendships, outside of being co-workers is building trust. Our group is all about unity, togetherness and trusting the next guy.’’
There are different ways to see how that chemistry translates. Lillard points to the handful of times a Blazers player has been in a “dust up” with an opponent, and there is immediately four teammates by his side. And when a Blazers player is knocked to the court, Lillard bets you will see at least three teammates lifting him back to his feet.
“How much we like each other, how much time we spend around each other, that shows you a team that is really together,’’ Lillard said. “It is a unit, and that makes up for us not being Cleveland. It makes up for us not having LeBron, Kyrie, Kevin Love. We are a group. We have each other’s back.’’
That unity, that togetherness just might have saved Maurice Harkless.
Somewhere around mid-January, coach Terry Stotts made a difficult decision: Maurice Harkless would no longer be in the regular playing rotation.
For Harkless, it was a painful pill to swallow. After the Jan. 29 game against Charlotte and the Jan. 31 game against Minnesota, he never left the bench and was dressed and headed out of the arena by the time Stotts was done addressing the media.
“I would leave here,’’ Harkless said, “and I would be pissed off.’’
Lillard, whose locker stall is next to Harkless, could sense a situation heading the wrong way.
So Lillard texted Harkless.
“I texted him: Man, you have to stay with it. We are going to need you. You are going to be big for us,’’ Lillard said.
Harkless looked at the text and stopped thinking about himself and instead thought about the people in the locker room. The guys he shared sweat with in practice, the guys he laughed with on the plane.
He texted Lillard back.
“I got you,’’ Lillard said, recalling the text.
At the next practice and beyond, nobody could tell whether Harkless had played 30 minutes or zero minutes. Plumlee remembers Harkless encouraging people to join him for a lift. Leonard remembers him coming early to practice and working out with Luis Montero. Henderson remembers Harkless going hard in practice.
“You don’t want to let your teammates down,’’ Harkless said matter-of-factly.
About a week later, after an injury to Vonleh, Harkless was a surprise starter in Houston, his defense against James Harden keying a big road victory. Since then, he has scored in double figures in five consecutive games, perhaps his best game on Sunday, when he had 17 points and seven rebounds in the win against the Jazz. Nine of his points were in the back-and-forth fourth quarter.
Behind his defense, his slashing to the basket and his relentless pursuit of rebounds, Harkless has changed the Blazers, making him one of the more valuable assets to an already productive bench.
“All the credit to him,’’ Lillard said. “He has kept working. His attitude in the locker room – of course, he wasn’t walking around extra happy – but he wasn’t pouty about it. He was still involved in conversations, still laughed, still joked, still played his slow jam playlist.’’
Harkless has helped save a Blazers team that, in a way, helped save him.
“A big part of all this is we are all so young,’’ Lillard said. “It’s a team full of guys with a new opportunity to do things they haven’t done. And they see everybody in here who wants them to do well with that opportunity. It’s ‘You embrace me; I embrace you. You got love for me; I got love for you.’’’
There may be some more heart breaking losses ahead, and more lessons to be learned, but for the moment, these Blazers are the talk of the town, if not the NBA.
They have reached this limelight because they have wallowed in the darkness of stinging defeats and hard lessons.
“We just had to learn,’’ Lillard said. “I think about that game at Houston. We were up 10 with two minutes left. We should have been having long possessions. We should have turned it up on defense. But we kind of softened up.’’
Since then, they have learned how to play better defense. How to take care of the ball. How to play with a lead late. And players have settled into roles.
“A lot of things changed,’’ Lillard said. “We’ve gotten closer. We understand each other better. And guys better understand what their roles are. And our confidence is different.’’
He goes back to that December night, the one when he came home from New Orleans and exhaled his frustration, wondering if the team would ever get a break. He was injured at the time, and he remembered having a new found perspective on the team from watching on the sideline.
The next game, the Blazers broke their five-game losing streak and beat Cleveland. Then they went to Sacramento and beat the Kings behind McCollum’s 37 points.
Lillard wouldn’t return until two games later, but he felt something turning. The Blazers were beginning to click, and they didn’t even need a break. They just needed time.
“I remember saying, when I come back, it’s going to be on, because we have life,’’ Lillard said. “And ever since then, it’s been on.’’