Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard on evolving goals: I'm thinking the NBA Finals

Trail Blazers

Just when the Trail Blazers season looked doomed and headed for another first-round exit, Portland put together the most impressive road trip of the season.

The Blazers went 5-1 on a six-game road trip and will return to Rip City just a half-game out of the fifth seed in the Western Conference with six games remaining. 

After the 36-point win over Cleveland, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard detailed how the goals for the team have evolved over his career and how he's still eyeing the franchise's first NBA Finals berth since 1992. 

[Listen to the latest Talkin’ Blazers Podcast with hosts Channing Frye and Dan Sheldon!]

"When I first got here, I just remember my rookie year where everyone was like 'We going to get into the playoffs this year! We going to get into the playoffs. We getting out the first round," recalled Lillard. "I just remember that being a big thing, getting out of the first round."

However, that season ended with a 13-game losing streak and the team selected CJ McCollum tenth overall during the 2013 NBA Draft. 

That next season? The Blazers saw both LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard make the All-Star team and the team advanced to the second round for the first time since 2000, behind Dame's game-winning shot with 0.9 left on the clock.

"The first year we didn't make the playoffs but then the second year... I just remember when we beat the Rockets like everybody on the team, we all got together and [celebrated]," said Lillard.

 

The scene after he sent Houston home was one Lillard will never forget. 

"It just tells you how big of a deal that was that even when I was leaving the arena that night, just to see how the city was, how alive the city was. You wouldn't have known if we had won the championship or we just won the series."

In fact, "it took days later until we were getting on the plane to go to San Antonio I was like 'That was just one round," added the Blazers point guard.

The Blazers would lose in five games to the eventual NBA Champions, but entered the 2014-15 season with high expectations.

"To me, I felt like we had a successful season, coming off not getting into the playoffs, not getting into the second round," said Lillard. "Then the next year was disappointing because you get that taste of the second round and obviously the next year you think that we're going to go further."

The team lived up to the high expectations until Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles and later lost during the first round the playoffs.

That offseason, Aldridge signed with San Antonio and Portland entered a rebuild with Lillard as the lone returning starter. The change in circumstances had Lillard change his goals for the season, too.

"Then the following year after that we were rebuilding so to me, I was like 'Let's still make the playoffs even though we got a young team."

The Blazers ended up losing to the 73-win Warriors in the second round after both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin suffered season-ending injuries during Game 4 of their first round series.

"We did that and got to the second round so I felt that was a good season for us," he explained. 

"Then the following year, we wanted a little bit more and we didn't get it," added Lillard referring to a first-round sweep to the Warriors in 2017. 

When did season goals change for Dame? When the team broke through and made the franchise's first Western Conference Finals in 19 years despite Jusuf Nurkić being sidelined with a gruesome injury. 

"It's changed for me each year and then when we made the Western Conference Finals, since then to me I'm looking at it like, The Finals," he said. 

"Because to get that far and be one of the final four teams playing, you're one step away."

Despite getting swept by Golden State, the Warriors trailed by at least 17 points in three of the four games and Portland felt it had upgraded the roster during the offseason. The Blazers entered the 2019-20 season with championship expectations. 

The result was an injury-riddled, disappointing season salvaged by an MVP-worthy series of games in the bubble from Dame, resulting in a five-game series vs. the Los Angeles Lakers. 

 

"Last year? It wasn't good enough. It was more frustrating," said Lillard. "We fought our way and got into the playoffs even though the whole bubble and the play-in experience... We earned our way but... to me I felt like underachievers because of the place that we got to [the previous season]."

Now with Portland playing to avoid the play-in, a point of emphasis for the team as described by Lillard during the All-Star break, Dame still has his focus on a deep postseason run.

"This year I'm looking at it the same way. I'm not looking at it like 'Oh we had injuries, let's make the playoffs.' I'm always thinking like how I felt when we were one of the final four teams and how we can take it a step further."

Now in his eighth season, Lillard tries to not get too caught up in every regular-season result, and instead, he takes a more big picture view. 

"[Before,] we might go to Detroit in game 45 and I'll be pissed off after the game. But now, I'm looking at it like 'How well are we playing as a team? Where are we as a team?'"

But, if the Blazers do not make a deep postseason run that does not mean the season will be a failure. 

"I wouldn't say if we don't, it's a failure because so many things happen. So many positives, so many things that have to go right for [an NBA Finals appearance] to happen."

With that said, that's what Dame has his goals aligned towards accomplishing. 

Playing well at the right time matters.