PORTLAND, Ore. — This weekend, Damian Lillard will play in his third career All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It’s an honor he’s wanted in a very public manner following two years of missing the cut, and he’s entering the break in the midst of a stretch of play that makes it tough to dispute he belongs there.
After that, the real work will begin for Lillard and for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Lillard’s 44-point performance in Wednesday night’s 123-117 win over the Golden State Warriors capped off a stretch of three games in which he totaled 133 points, the most over a three-game span in Blazers franchise history.
It’s not often that a 50-point night from Kevin Durant is reduced to an afterthought, but Lillard and the Blazers managed to do just that in arguably their most impressive game of the season.
It was a game the Blazers needed badly after a dispiriting 19-point loss to the Utah Jazz on Sunday, and it sends them into the break on the heels of what head coach Terry Stotts called a "signature win." If all goes according to plan, it will be a tone-setter, both for the Blazers and for Lillard to further burnish his credentials as one of the NBA’s elite-level superstars.
There will be no letting up in a Western Conference playoff race that’s shaping up to go down to the wire, leaving several worthy teams out of luck. The Blazers will need more of what Lillard has been giving them this week, and he knows it.
Lillard’s reputation as a big-game performer has come in large part due to his success against the Warriors. His first career 50-point game powered a rare win over the 73-win Warriors of 2016, and his 26.6 points per game against Golden State over his career are more than against any other opponent save Toronto. Lillard, an Oakland native, loves playing his hometown team, and he loves playing against the team everybody in the NBA has chased for the better part of four seasons.
"It’s a great matchup," Lillard said after the game. "Playing against Steph [Curry], a two-time MVP, and Klay [Thompson] and KD and Draymond [Green], they won two of the last three championships, I think that’s part of it. But also, I think the type of game they force you to play is so fast-paced and up-and-down. You’re not going to have a chance to beat them if you’re not attacking them back. So I’ve got to be going downhill, attacking. But also, your offense is a part of your defense against them. Making them guard and making them use energy to defend you is a part of a defensive strategy."
The Blazers will have to retain that same edge over the final eight weeks of the regular season. Most nights, the scoring load will fall upon Lillard and CJ McCollum, who piled on 29 points of his own on Sunday. That duo’s production, on most nights, is a given. The supporting cast—the likes of Jusuf Nurkic, Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner and Al-Farouq Aminu—will take them as far as they will or will not go. But everything begins with the high-scoring backcourt, and with Lillard’s example.
"It’s a tight race," Lillard said. "There’s a lot of teams in the mix, and you get to the point in the season where guys are fatigued physically and mentally, and to be the leader of a team, you’ve got to be able to lead the charge. You’ve got to lead by your actions, and that’s just who I am. The strongest guys are going to survive, and right now our team is showing that we’re there mentally."
Just how tight does the race figure to be? Heading into the break, the Blazers’ 32-26 record puts them sixth in the Western Conference, two games behind the Minnesota Timberwolves for home-court advantage in the first round, but just one game ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers, who are in ninth place on the outside looking in. The Utah Jazz, winners of 11 in a row, trail the Clippers by only one game, and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans remain in the mix as well.
There will be no room for Portland to lose ground. Of their 24 remaining games after the break, nine are against the teams they’re battling for position. Another six come against contenders including the Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics.
Secure the fourth, fifth or sixth seed and the Blazers may have a real chance at a first-round upset. Falling to seventh or eighth would mean facing Golden State or Houston, a much longer shot. But that would still be preferable to falling out of the top eight entirely, which is on the table for every one of these teams.
"I think we’re comfortable with where we’re at, our rotations and what we’ve been able to build defensively," McCollum said. "We have to have a greater sense of urgency, especially in the Western Conference with how close everyone is."
Over the past two seasons, the Blazers have performed significantly better after the All-Star break than in the first part of the season. The midseason trade for Nurkic was the catalyst for an 18-8 finish last season. This year, after a quiet trade deadline, there’s no infusion of new blood, but Lillard and the Blazers are hoping for a similarly strong finish.
"I think it’s in the back of our minds," Lillard said. "We know that we’re usually a better team in the second half of the season. We can’t just go into it assuming, ‘OK, we’re always this good at this part of the season.’ But we know how close of a race it is, and we’ve got to be sharp. That’s what we do. We play the season all the way through, and we compete. I think that’s a huge reason why we’re so good in the second half of the season. Every guy on the roster cares."
How the Blazers finish this hard-fought race will be the difference between a dark-horse playoff run and a trip to the lottery. The Blazers won’t be the odd team out if Lillard has anything to say about it.
"Each season, there’s always a few teams that fall by the wayside," Lillard said. "Our job is to make sure that we’re not one of them. And as the leader, I’ve got to lead the charge."
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February 15, 2018 at 06:57AM