Around the time CJ McCollum was being served a late-night dinner at Portland City Grill after Saturday’s Game 1 loss, he received a text message from backcourt mate Damian Lillard.
Lillard was at his Lake Oswego home, feeling irritated about the Trail Blazers’ 97-95 loss to New Orleans, during which neither he nor McCollum played well.
The text messages zipped back and forth. They talked strategy. They talked about mindset. And they talked about communication.
“It was a little bit of everything,’’ McCollum said.
The two stars have grown to become close friends, a relationship that started when McCollum was a senior at Lehigh and Lillard a rookie with the Blazers. Their bond has grown to where they train, travel and talk frank with each other.
“It’s a level of accountability,’’ Lillard said. “I can say to him, ‘Man, you have to be more aggressive in the first half …’ That’s what it is like between us.’’
After Game 1, McCollum estimates their phones buzzed back-and-forth six to 10 times.
“We were both thinking the same thing,’’ McCollum said.
Neither wanted to divulge specifics of their communication, but the gist was what every Blazers fan was muttering after the duo went a combined 13-for-41 in Game 1:
“We both have to produce,’’ Lillard said.
Lillard said the conversation never turned negative. They didn’t complain about New Orleans’ traps. They didn’t belabor their shot selection. And they didn’t question the game plan.
The messages were about themselves, and how two stars who had bad games can turn it around in time for Tuesday’s Game 2.
By the end of the messages, both were centered and had returned to their comfort zone: Lillard with a new challenge, and McCollum at peace amid a storm.
One of Lillard’s greatest strengths is his mental makeup. If he isn’t motivating himself with real or perceived slights – from his college recruitment to All-Star snubs – he is flipping negative situations into a positive light.
By the time he had finished texting McCollum and processed Game 1, he had embraced a new challenge: Flipping the script on the Game 1 loss.
The new storyline?
“Why not some adversity?’’ Lillard said. “Why not?’’
Since he has been in Portland, not much has been easy. There have been injuries at key moments in the season. Free agent defections. And wild swings in play.
Shoot, even this season has been one filled with ups and downs, even recently with a four-game losing streak in the week leading up to the playoffs.
A Game 1 loss? It fits these Blazers.
“I literally convinced myself: this makes it better,’’ Lillard said. “Sometimes, you have to go through something. If you really are built for it and it’s really what you want, there’s nothing wrong with adversity.’’
When he left the arena, he says he was “kind of irritated,” in part because of his 6-for-23 shooting night, and in part because the Blazers let a memorable moment slip.
For once, it seemed things were lined up to be special: The Blazers had secured home court advantage for the first time in his six seasons, and the city and arena were buzzing entering Saturday’s game.
“We had this really good season, came in with home court and the three seed, and it was like, this should be sweet,’’ Lillard said.
But after making his first shot, he missed his next eight. Meanwhile, McCollum missed his first six shots. Then late in the game, after the Blazers fought back from 19 down, both he and McCollum came up short – McCollum with a bad pass with 44 seconds left and the Blazers trailing by one, and Lillard with an awkward airball in the lane with 15.3 seconds left and the Blazers still trailing by one.
It wasn’t the first time the duo had struggled at the same time, but it was the most emphatic.
But after he and McCollum texted, he had a new mindset, and a new focus.
“Just like they came here and won, we can go there and win,’’ Lillard said. “Ain’t nothing wrong with adversity … nothing wrong with it. It just came early.’’
Just like McCollum can remember his Saturday order at Portland City Grill – 7.5 ounce steak topped with Dungeness crab and béarnaise sauce, with a baked potato on the side – he can recall with great detail his other big-stage failures.
One game after scoring 30 points to lead 15th-seeded Lehigh to an upset of second-seeded Duke in the NCAA Tournament, McCollum stumbled the next round against Xavier. He went 5-for-22, and Lehigh lost a 15-point first half lead in a 70-58 loss.
“I was this close to going to the Sweet 16 and we lose,’’ McCollum said. “It builds better character.’’
With the Blazers, he has also had some trying moments in the playoffs. In 2015, against Memphis, he went 1-for-8 in his first playoff start in Game 1. Game 2 wasn’t much better: 3-for-13.
The next season, against the Clippers, he went 3-for-11 and scored nine points in Game 1. In Game 2, he went 6-for-17 and had 16 points.
“You are going to have poor performances; you are going to miss shots,’’ McCollum said. “It’s about how you bounce back. Average players have one good game. Great players have one bad game.’’
After those slow playoff starts against Memphis and the Clippers, McCollum came back with vengeance. He had 26, 18 and 33 points against Memphis. And 27, 19, 27 and 20 against the Clippers.
It’s why unlike Lillard, who was irritated and proactive in beginning a text string, McCollum was at ease Saturday, dining with a view 30 floors above Portland.
“I can be like this (his hand horizontal) because my life has been like this (his hand rolling like a roller coaster),’’ McCollum said. “I stay calm in the midst of chaos. I’ve seen it all. I’ve been through a lot. So this doesn’t faze me. I do what I can do, prepare, and I live with the result.’’
Lillard, and the rest of the Blazers, have grown accustomed to McCollum’s cool and steady mental approach. And all of them are not worried about a slump (17.0 points, 36.7 percent field goal and 27.6 percent 3-pointers) that has stretched past two weeks now.
“Put it like this: I never worry about CJ,’’ Lillard said. “I just know he is really confident and believes. And you just have to let it happen.’’
McCollum says his slump won’t take away his aggressiveness, relaying an adage his agent passed along during the season.
“When the lion is hunting and doesn’t find his sheep, he doesn’t turn into a vegan … it continues to hunt and figures it out,’’ McCollum said.
The hunt resumes Tuesday in Game 2 at the Moda Center, and both Lillard and McCollum say they are confident they are better equipped to attack the pack of New Orleans defenders -- Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, E’Twaun Moore and Ian Clark chief among them – who applied the Game 1 clamps.
“When you want something so badly – like, we want to be great, we want to win – you can’t do it by yourself. You need help,’’ McCollum said. “You need other players who are elite and work hard and take pressure off you, and that’s why we lean on each other.’’
When the Blazers reported to practice Sunday, Lillard studied the makeup of the team, and liked what he saw.
“When you lose a Game 1 and everyone is tight – that means the loss is lingering. Today it wasn’t lingering,’’ Lillard said. “It was more like, we are upset we didn’t handle our business. We watched film and people said what they had to say about certain situations – but that was it. We know we have to play with urgency, but also have to be free.’’
For Lillard and McCollum, part of letting go of Game 1 included a Saturday night text session.
“We communicate too much to lose a Game 1 and not saying anything to each other,’’ Lillard said.
Added McCollum: “We are always on the same page, even when we don’t verbalize it. We understand each other, and at this point, we know what needs to be done.’’
The stars, they know, need to play like stars.
“I’m not a worrier; I’m going to keep shooting,’’ Lillard said. “I know I’m going to get it done.’’