CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- NBA franchises go stale. It happens.
Setbacks occur on and off the court. Some obstacles, like falling short of playoff expectations, might shake a franchise to its core. Others fall back on an established ethos that sets expectations and ideals so that when tough times arrive, restoring balance isn’t arduous.
The Portland Trailblazers believe their culture keeps them flying high.
Portland started a run of five consecutive postseason appearances in 2013 after a combined 61 wins the prior two seasons. Twice it won a round, but never more than one.
Last season seemed like a chance for another series triumph, but the No. 3 seed was stunned by New Orleans during a four-game sweep. Such frustration might send some teams into a tizzy, lead outsiders to call for heads. The Blazers kept their cool. The core remained.
Following Sunday’s 119-109 win over the Wizards, Portland (11-5) moved percentage points ahead of Golden State for first in the Western Conference.
“I think it just shows the character of our team,” All-Star guard Damian Lillard said of Portland’s resiliency shortly after scoring 40 points against Washington. “That’s from our coaches to the training staff to players on the team. We enjoy the process of what we’re building together. We’re committed to each other. That’s the biggest thing. We all want to have success and we all know that doesn’t happen overnight.”
The turn began in 2012 with the arrival of several leaders, including Lillard, general manager Neil Olshey and coach Terry Stotts. Another foundational move came in 2013 with the selection of a second consecutive first-round guard, C.J. McCollum.
That backcourt pairing, similar to the Wizards’ duo of John Wall and Bradley Beal, became the headliners, the tone-setters. They learned how to win, how to lead.
“We have a lot of good guys on the team. Damian and C.J. are good friends. They’re both very talented players,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “They complement each other well. I don’t know. Maybe I just take it for granted, but I try not to. We’ve got really good culture and it’s led by those two guys.”
Forward Meyers Leonard, Portland’s second lottery pick after Lillard in 2012, also promoted the power of the franchise’s values in keeping the team from imploding when struggles arise.
“What’s expected of you every single day, both as a person and a player. Guys show up to the facility ready to work. It’s a good environment. Everyone enjoys being there. Everyone works hard. … Getting work in before practice, getting work in after practice. Being willing to compete in practice and never take anything personal because we know we want to get better. That all translates to the game.”
While the Blazers talked cohesion, the Wizards spent another evening looking for answers. Washington, which trailed 32-12 and by 21 at halftime, fell to 5-11.
“It was terrible,” Beal said.
“You don't win games by just playing, you win games by competing,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “And you win games by competing for your teammates, and you don't win games any other way. There is no team in this league that can win games if you don't compete for your teammates. And I got to find five guys that are willing to do that.”
Washington started the season 1-6 with its only victory coming at Portland Oct. 22, 125-124 in overtime. Markieff Morris led the Wizards with 28 points, and Otto Porter blocked Lillard’s potential game-winning shot at the buzzer. Portland’s starting guards shot a dismal 12-for-46 from the field, though Lillard still scored 29.
He wasn’t particularly efficient in the rematch either (12 for 29 field goals) but some positive aspects continued. Lillard’s tenacity showed especially Sunday with Portland coming off back-to-back losses. In both games, Lillard made 13 of 15 free throws. Whether the shots were falling or not, he decided this was a game where laying back wasn’t an option.
“We wanted to come in and be sharp. I knew that being a leader on this team, I had to come out here and kind of enforce that and impose my will and be aggressive and assertive and live with the result,” Lillard said. “That was my mindset coming in and I was going to keep my foot on that gas until there was no time left to make sure we got it done.”
They did and now sit in the reified air, looking down at Golden State in the standings. From the Blazers’ perspective, this result wasn’t about a good night’s work, but long-running connections.
“The more you connect on a personal level with your teammates, your coaches, with everybody the more success you’re going to have. The more you’re gonna want to work,” Leonard said. “The more you’re going to compete as hard as you possibly can. It all comes back to culture. When we get free agents, it’s what’s expected. It’s fun to be around. It’s fun to come to work. That’s what I would say is the biggest thing.”
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