CJ McCollum walked gingerly back into the weight room on Monday night, his left knee cradled in a soft brace and his forehead slightly sweaty from the cardio work on the stationary bike he had just completed before meeting with the media.
About four hours later, Damian Lillard spoke to a similar crowd of television cameras and reporters, his answers landing somewhere between relief and cautious optimism.
That’s what Day 2 of the McCollum’s rehabilitation journey looked like inside the Moda Center. The Blazers announced on Sunday that McCollum had sustained a popliteus strain in his left knee on and that he would be out at least a week before the team’s medical staff will re-evaluate him.
There isn’t a certain timeline for McCollum’s return. He is almost certainly going to miss more than a week, and Lillard has already mentally prepared for a month without McCollum in a uniform.
“Mentally, I don’t want him to have to rush it and when he does come back I want him to be himself and be healthy. So in my mind we going to finish the regular season without him,” Lillard said. “Maybe the last couple games (of the regular season). In my mind that’s how I should think of it. Just knowing that we got to have a great effort for these last 12 games, planning on not having him out there. We’d rather have him healthy and strong in the playoffs than have him come back early and not be himself and maybe aggravate it a little in a way we don’t need him to.”
If any team understands what it’s like to maintain playoff position without a key piece, it might be the team the Blazers beat on Monday night. The Indiana Pacers, who lost All-Star guard Victor Oladipo to a season-ending quadriceps injury on Jan. 23, have refused to give up their hold of court advantage long after many teams would have let go of the rope.
“We played without Victor earlier in the season for 11 games and we knew he was coming back,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “This last injury we had the feeling he may not be coming back and when we found out that he wasn’t, it was definitely a shot because he really changes what you do out on the floor. He kinda helped us establish a style of play on both ends of the floor. So without him it took us a few games to get comfortable and make those adjustments and really focus on who we have as opposed to who we don’t have.”
That’s what the Blazers will have to turn to over the final 12 games of the regular season. They’ll replace McCollum’s scoring by committee with an uptick in minutes and responsibilities for Rodney Hood, Seth Curry and Jake Layman. And Lillard will naturally do more, admitting he will be a little more “hands on” during the stretch run.
When Oladipo went down in January the Pacers dropped four straight, but have gone 13-7 since, falling just one spot from third to fourth in the East without their best player in the lineup. The Blazers can’t afford a learning curve as long or a steep as Indiana’s, but the blueprint the Pacers have mapped out over the past eight weeks remains a valuable one.
That’s why Lillard is preaching patience to his friend and teammate while McCollum is spending his days working out in the pool, shifting his diet to speed up recovery and plowing into rehab with the precision of his mid-range pull-ups.
“I told him I already know he’s going to try to get in a million hours of rehab and do all this stuff,” Lillard said.
“But I told him he should do that. You should be on top of it and stay involved like you always do but just don’t rush back to get to the game. We’re in a great position. We need guys to step up. It’s only going to be better for our team in the long run. So i’ve told him ‘Take your time, don’t rush, get healthy and come back right.”