The Portland Trail Blazers’ First Half of the season was no easy feat.
CJ McCollum suffered a broken foot, Jusuf Nurkic sustained a broken wrist, and a number of other players such as Harry Giles and Derrick Jones Jr. missed time throughout the first 35 games, leaving other players to carry the burden in their absence.
But the shorthanded Trail Blazers pushed forward, winning three-straight at home before the All-Star break, and notching a 21-14 record to own fifth place in the Western Conference standings.
Despite the expected return of McCollum and Nurkic in the coming weeks, Portland’s Second Half schedule is daunting. The team will play 37 games over the next two-and-a-half months, meaning some load management might be order for one of the team’s star players.
Damian Lillard has been averaging 29.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists in 36.0 minutes of work without Portland’s two starters. Luckily his backcourt mate, McCollum, has been keeping a close eye on Lillard’s health.
“After the game tonight, CJ came up to me and was like great first half, but in the second half don’t make me have to come to your house and tell you you’re not playing tonight, because we got to be smart,” Lillard said.
The Trail Blazers star, who ranks sixth in the league in minutes heading into All-Star break, knows he will inevitably have to experiment with load management at some point this season. It’s a part of a game, though, that can be tricky depending on playoff seeding.
That’s why Lillard believes it’s crucial for Portland to be a six-seed or higher to control its destiny in the playoff picture.
“I think we just got to focus on being a top-6 seed so we not in a play-in situation,” Lillard said. “Once we are affirming that top 6, I think we should play that game of which team do we want to be matched up against once we get into the playoffs.”
He also mentioned the team’s run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019 where Portland was swept 4-0 by Golden State.
“I think that’s what we can be better at, sometimes just doing what’s better for us in the long run, and not working so hard to get in a certain spot in the playoffs, and then when we get there, we’re pretty much running out of gas like we did during the Western Conference Finals run,” he said.
"We got to be, I think, got to make sure we’re not one of those teams in that play-in, with 7 and 8, and then we got to play that game. What teams do we want to try to position ourselves to be matched up against? And what are those windows where I can maybe take a night or take a game, so it makes more sense for us in the long run.”
Lillard has already begun taking some of that much-needed load management by pulling out of the NBA Three-Point Contest to rest and heal up for the Second Half of the season. With 10 back-to-backs and some grueling stretches of five games in seven nights, he will need every bit of it.
Following the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday, the Trail Blazers will have a few extra days of rest to prepare for the Second Half which begins next Thursday against Phoenix.