VIDEO: Taking a closer look at Damian Lillard’s recent hot streak
NEW YORK CITY — They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, but Broadway had nothing on the Portland Trail Blazers’ visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden last week. The Blazers made certain everything was illuminated pregame by setting up a battery of bright lights in the center of the room facing the lockers, which shined into the faces of the players as they prepped to play the Knicks. The lights were supposed to make sure the Portland players were wide-awake and energized for tip-off.
Whatever Portland is doing right now, it is clearly working. The Trail Blazers are 14-4 in their last 18 games, a run that has vaulted them from a team mostly overlooked in the heavyweight Western Conference to a 33-30 squad with a firm grip on a seventh seed. Portland will look to continue its winning play tonight at Detroit (6 ET, NBA TV), the Blazers’ last stop on a six-game road trip.
While Portland’s players and coaches are quick to credit improved play and recognition on the defensive end as a catalyst for this run, it’s tough to overlook the Blazers’ backcourt, which features the dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The two guards have combined to average 46.7 points and 11.2 assists through Portland’s first 63 games, and have a lot in common: they’re both in their mid-twenties; both were four-year players at smaller colleges (Lillard at Weber State, McCollum at Lehigh); both were lottery picks by the Blazers.
“They’re both very mature guys,” says Portland coach Terry Stotts. “Not even talking in a basketball context, they’re both very mature. I think partly that’s who they are, but neither one of them had it easy — they had to work to get to this point. Not to say that other players don’t, but they had a different route. I think that helps with their maturity and their mental approach to their game and the team game.”
While Lillard made an impact right away, winning Rookie of the Year in 2013, McCollum’s arrival has occurred at a more measured pace. His first two seasons were hampered by injuries, and when he was healthy, it was hard to get playing time behind veterans such as Wesley Matthews. But with Matthews departed, as well as vets such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, McCollum has stepped into the leadership void and thrived, averaging 20.9 points in 61 starts this season.
“I always knew at some point I’d be an impact player at this level,” McCollum says, “I just didn’t know when. It was more about being healthy and having the right opportunity. Once it came I looked forward to it and I relished the opportunity to perform at a high level, and help my team each and every night. So I always knew there was going to be a time I was going to be able to do this, I just didn’t know when.”
McCollum credits some of his success this season to playing within the same system his entire career: “I know our offense, our schemes defensively, how we like to guard pick and rolls, our off ball screens, things like that. And just having a better understanding of our offense and having run the point, being able to direct guys and put guys in positions, and also to play the two and understand each and everybody’s role. I think as you play in this system under one coach for long periods of time, you begin to understand what they’re looking for.”
By now, it’s pretty clear what you’re going to get from Damian Lillard — over his first three seasons, the 6-foot-3 point guard averaged 20.2 points to go with 6.1 assists, and has been named an All-Star twice. Through his first 47 games this season, Lillard averaged 24.3 points, including back-to-back 30-point games before the All-Star break.
Lillard was not named a Western Conference All-Star this season, and while Lillard brushes off talk of a snub being a motivating factor, the numbers suggest otherwise: Since the All-Star break, Lillard has averaged 33.6 points in nine contests, including two games of at least 50 points (51 against Golden State, 50 against Toronto). Overall, Lillard has scored at least 30 in 10 of his last 12 games.
“From day one, he’s been a remarkably consistent player,” Stotts says of Lillard. “The only difference I would say is that he — and it’s not necessarily just during this stretch — is he’s accepted the mantle of leadership and being the best player and taking that responsibility. He’s continued to get better in that role. Obviously that stretch of 30-point games is pretty remarkable, but I can’t say he’s doing it differently that he’s done it before.”
“One thing I feel like other people are learning is that I’m always up for the challenge,” Lillard says. “Anything that’s put in front of me, I might not be great at it, I might not do the greatest job to begin with, but I’m going to come around. If I don’t do well at it, I’m going to say I didn’t do well at it, and I’ll be able to say I worked on it. So… just embracing challenges. I’ll stand up to whatever, and I think that’s what’s happened this season.”
For the Blazers to maintain their recent success, and perhaps even make some noise in the postseason, McCollum and Lillard will have to continue to lead the way. While they’re clearly in the conversation when it comes to the NBA’s best backcourts — the Splash Brothers in Golden State have a pretty good argument — McCollum notes they haven’t really had time to appreciate just how good they’ve been this season.
“I know we’re very competitive guys,” McCollum says, “and we’ve been playing well together, 50-60 games into the season, and now we’re establishing ourselves around the league. But we’re just doing what we always knew we were capable of doing. Now it’s just about getting better each day and you don’t take any steps back. Have we looked at it? Not really, because we’re still in season, we’re still trying to complete some of our goals. We’ll evaluate that more after the season.”
Though the Blazers have clearly unlocked a higher level of play over the last few weeks, Lillard believes now the task is to try and sustain this level of play the rest of the way. Houston and Utah are just a few losses behind Portland, meaning many of the young Blazers find themselves in their first playoff race. Lillard, the team’s veteran leader at all of 25 years old, says the Blazers “can’t even look that far ahead.” Instead, Lillard believes the Blazers simply need to continue to perform under the bright lights.
“The season is what, six, seven, eight months?” Lillard asks. “We’ve done it for a month and a half. I think the next step is to be able to sustain it for a longer period of time. At the start of the season we were 4-2 — we had four games we got after it, we did it for a short amount of time. Then we had a seven-game losing streak. Then we picked it up for one game. Then we had drop-offs. Now I think we figured out how to do it for a longer span of time. The next step is to learn how to permanently be this team. As of now, this is who we are.”