LOS ANGELES –Turns out Sunday was more than just a preseason game for the Trail Blazers. It was also a refresher course in embracing the proper mental approach when the season starts in 10 days.
And it was no surprise who was leading the seminar: Damian Lillard.
The Blazers’ star point guard looked in All-Star form Sunday while scoring 35 points in 26 minutes as the Blazers continued a promising preseason with a 134-106 win over the LA Clippers at the Staples Center.
Most veterans, especially one with resumes like Lillard, treat the preseason with the enthusiasm of a teenager eating lima beans. But Lillard on Sunday said he is intent on establishing a sense of urgency to the start of this season in order to prevent a repeat of last year’s sputtering start.
“We want to get off to better starts in games, and a better start to the regular season, so our mentality has to be that this is a game … doesn’t matter if it’s preseason, doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go on our record … we have to be ready,’’ Lillard said. “Our mentality has to be, ‘We are going to handle our business.’ And that’s it. So when the season comes, it’s not like we have to tell ourselves, OK, this one counts.’’
The Blazers last season had a losing record from Dec. 10 through April 1, eventually using a late-season push and the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic to squeak into the playoffs with the eighth seed and a 41-41 record.
In retrospect, players and coaches say last year’s team lost its edge, and perhaps forgot how tough it was to stay persistent and on task throughout the grinding season.
Twelve players return this season, but Lillard is intent on making sure that familiarity doesn’t lull the team into contentment, even in the preseason.
So on Sunday, there was Lillard – stripping Milos Teodosic at halfcourt, making hard drives into traffic, and rolling on the court amid the antagonistic defense of Patrick Beverley.
“He knows its important for us to get off to a good start this season,’’ coach Terry Stotts said, “and he is kind of leading the troops.’’
All told, Lillard made 9-of-17 shots, all 13 of his free throws, and added three assists and two steals.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a practice or a preseason game, our mentality has to be like this,’’ Lillard said. “So regardless of the situation is, it’s always there and we don’t have to try to take it up a level or any of those things … we are not good enough to do that. We are not the Golden State Warriors … the little things matter for us and it starts with our mentality.’’
Evan Turner said the team has made a point to focus on their start this season, and it helps when the captain is not only talking about it, but also showing it.
“Clearly, he’s our leader, and when he is doing it himself and practicing what he preaches, it definitely sets a tone and holds people accountable,’’ Turner said. “We are all aware of one, how good the West is; and two, how hard it was to battle back last season and make the playoffs; and three, making it easy on ourselves.’’
Sunday featured more than just Lillard’s excellence.
Turner played a heady game out of the post, amassing eight assists, many of them after the Clippers sent double teams at him.
Maurice Harkless continued his strong preseason by making all six of his shots, finishing with 16 points, four rebounds and three assists.
Nurkic was dominant for stretches, finishing with 13 points and nine rebounds before fouling out in 24 minutes.
There was also 12 points from Zach Collins; 10 rebounds in 11 minutes from Meyers Leonard; and CJ McCollum had 12 of his 20 points in the second half.
From a lineup standpoint, Stotts on Sunday looked heavily at rookie Caleb Swanigan as a starter. He began the game with Lillard, McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Swanigan and Nurkic, then started the second half with Harkless in place of Aminu.
Swanigan was “solid” according to Stotts, and finished with five points and four rebounds in 14 minutes while mostly going against Clippers’ All-Star Blake Griffin, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds in 24 minutes.
On Monday, the Blazers play in Sacramento, and Stotts said he will play Lillard and McCollum upwards of 30 minutes.
No matter how the minutes allotment turns out, rest assured Lillard and the rest of the Blazers will approach it like a regular season game.
“Hey, how you practice is how you play and how you approach the preseason is how you start the season,’’ McCollum said. “Obviously the wins and losses don’t matter but how you approach it mentally … it’s important you approach it like a real game, because the season is what nine, 10 days away? There’s no going back once it starts.’’