OKLAHOMA CITY – The Trail Blazers, heading into tonight’s Game 3 vs. Oklahoma City, have been playing as well together as they have over the past several seasons. Different players are stepping up to help Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum like never before. This team is connected – at both ends of the floor.
And it all started at one of the low points of the season. The foundation for the team’s current play was built during adversity. Dark days.
McCollum went down with a knee injury during a game at San Antonio March 16. And nobody was quite sure how quickly he would return. Jusuf Nurkic would be lost for the season with a broken leg March 27. What appeared to be a season when the Trail Blazers could make a run at the conference finals, people suddenly questioned their ability even to make the playoffs.
Just how many points per game would Damian Lillard need to score per game to get this team on the winning track and into a decent playoff seed? Forty points? Fifty?
Turns out that approach wasn’t the right direction. Lillard had a better idea.
“I go back to those first three games when CJ was out,” Coach Terry Stotts said. “Before Nurk got hurt, but CJ was out. Those three games where he averaged 30 points and double-digit assists – being very efficient scoring the ball and setting up his teammates.
“I think that really set the tone for the rest of the season.
“Damian is very astute. Now he’s been in the league -- this is his seventh year -- I think he’s learned a lot. So I think he understood the dynamics.
“It’s not to say he wasn’t trying to score – we need him to score. But his understanding of the game and its dynamics had a lot to do with it.”
Lillard knows he’s progressed over time and those who have watched his career develop are aware of it. But the world may not understand how deep his intellectual approach to the game has become.
Maybe a few years ago, well...
“I would have taken it upon myself to try to have more big games,” Lillard said. “But I think it’s part of experience, learning and watching film and having a coaching staff that challenges you.
“Like now, when Nate Tibbetts mentions something to me like ‘Hey, I want to show you these clips. I want to talk about this.’ And we talk about it and so OK, I understand that.
“Dave Vanterpool says, ‘Dame, I need you to look at this.’ And Jim Moran says, ‘Dame, look at this.’ Dale Osbourne …they’ve all come to me and that has helped me advance my game as a point guard – mentally, and to know how to manage things better.
“Playing for a good staff, I went into that situation thinking, ‘I need to try to help my guys, where I can put them in a position to do what they do best, instead of me taking it upon myself.’
“And that will make us a better team in the bigger picture. And it will work out better for us. With Nurk and CJ out, it will work out better for us. And it was a perfect situation.
“That’s just what it had to be. If it came to where we weren’t going to win the game, my mentality was, if we get to the fourth quarter and we’re not scoring, then take it upon yourself.”
It’s all about trust – such an underrated ingredient in a team’s success. And Lillard gets it.
“Guys are capable,” he said. “Allow them to do what they do. Because they know the opportunity is going to be there.”
And they know their leader, Damian Lillard, trusts them.
“Exactly,” he said. ”That’s all the difference in the world.”