The Portland Trailblazers lost four starters in the off-season and were a clear favorite among analysts to be in the 2016 NBA Draft lottery. Surely, the experts predicted, they would not be a playoff contender this year.
Maybe all that chatter put a fire in point guard Damian Lillard's soul and has assisted him in leading his team to the 5th seed in the Western Conference and a first round playoff victory over the injury riddled Los Angeles Clippers. Living up to his team's name, Lillard has been a true "trailblazer", defying the odds as their only remaining starter and now franchise player.
The loss of LaMarcus Aldridge was suspected to be the hardest hit of them all. Aldridge averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds in the 2015-2016 regular season and had been the cornerstone of the franchise for last nine years.
Odds makers predicted Portland would win 26 games and were in complete rebuild mode. Outside of Lillard, the team was only left with rotation players like Moe Harkless, Gerald Henderson Jr. and Allen Crabbe.
But the best individual players are the ones that can make average players look great, and Lillard has doubled down on this notion.
The Trailblazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey told ESPN, “A lot of our guys are having career years. A lot of that is what they do on the floor with Damian but also how he treats and embraces them and empowers them to be more than what other people might have thought they were.”
Lillard’s backcourt companion, C.J. McCollum, has gone from averaging 6.8 points a game to 20.8 this season, winning the NBA’s Most Improved player award. Not to mention players like Al-Farouq Aminu, who is averaging 14 points and eight rebounds this post season. He’s putting up 17 points and eight rebounds against the Golden State Warriors in this Western Conference semifinal series.
In an interview earlier this season with Chris Broussard, Lillard and McCollum spoke on the unselfish style of play that the TrailBlazers have been displaying all season; something they both attribute to the team’s success. Lillard has made the balance of supreme confidence and extreme humility look easy.
From dropping dimes just like his alter ego “Baby Dame Dolla” to making contested 30-footers look like layups, he’s infusing his personal mantra - "Be a King in your mind but do the work of a servant" - into this young but hungry Trailblazers team.
Lillard’s humble beginnings in Oakland and his accomplishments away from the major college basketball bright lights at Weber State University have helped shape his disposition. Same goes for McCollum, who hails from Canton, Ohio and played his college ball at Lehigh.
This Trailblazers squad is very reminiscent of the 2010 Oklahoma City Thunder, who gave the then-champion Los Angeles Lakers a serious run for their money in the first round of the playoffs. Two years later, OKC graduated to an appearance in the NBA Finals.
I’m not saying that Lillard and McCollum are Durant and Westbrook, but they have the potential to be one of the more dynamic one-two punches in the Western Conference for many years to come.
Despite their surprising playoff run, the Blazers find themselves now in a 3-1 series deficit against the defending Warriors. Portland was handed a demoralizing loss in OT of Game 4 after leading the Warriors most of the way, until an unprecedented 17-point explosion by now two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry.
After Game 4, a disappointed but ever-confident Lillard lamented during the post game press conference, “We were in position to win the last three games. We had slippage and a championship team is going to take advantage of that and that’s what they did.”
As the old adage goes, experience is the best teacher. The average age of the Blazers roster is 23.9 years old, making them the third-youngest team in the league and the youngest in this year’s playoffs.
Although the task seems daunting, Portland isn’t giving up just yet. In the Game 4 loss they were still in position to win despite an off night offensively for McCollum and Lillard, who only made 18 of their combined 53 shot attempts from the field.
“It’s not going to be no rolling over, it’s not going to be no out here being scared, it’s not going to be any of that,” Lillard told reporters after Game 4.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
The Blazers don’t seem to be giving up and if their season is any proof, they relish being counted out. The Warriors are poised to close them out in Lillard’s hometown of Oakland in tonight’s pivotal game 5.
When asked during the post game press conference if Portland was all but finished, Warriors forward Draymond Green said, “Do I think they’re done? Of course I think they’re done.”
Lillard and Company might have something to say about that. After all, they’re really just getting started.