The Portland Trail Blazers entered the season with four new starters and stumbled to a 15-24 record out of the gate.
But then they got rolling. Portland went 29-14 down the stretch to finish 44-38, nab the fifth seed in the Western Conference and upset the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round.
It was all because of Damian Lillard.
Indeed, the 25-year-old point guard has been a constant for the Trail Blazers this season. He scored 51 points in a 137-105 blowout win over Golden State in February and has been the leader the Trail Blazers so desperately needed, especially after LaMarcus Aldridge signed with San Antonio last offseason.
“I think (Damian has) really embraced (the leadership role),” Blazers radio voice Brian Wheeler said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “As good of a player as LaMarcus was when he was in Portland, I don’t think he really wanted the responsibility of being the leader, wanted the duties that came with being the No. 1 guy. I think he didn’t mind the platitudes that came with that and the attention that that meant, but I think he really was not quite the leader you would expect maybe the best player on the team to be. That’s just part of his makeup. I think Damian made sure he didn’t step on LaMarcus’ toes and didn’t try to do too much. I think there was always a feeling that LaMarcus was kind of a sensitive guy and you had to always make sure that if Damian got some attention that you also gave attention to LaMarcus at the same time.
“Now that LaMarcus has left, I think Damian really just has no hesitation now in being assertive,” Wheeler continued. “But he’s a guy who doesn’t really lead to draw attention to himself. He’s somebody that wants it to be a cooperative effort with all coaches and players involved. He’s one of those guys (who’s) the best player on the team that doesn’t act like it in terms of feeling entitled to anything. I think it’s been a perfect fit. A lot of guys that have come from other teams that have been part of this Blazers mix this season have been very quick to say that this is the most fun they’ve had playing basketball. Most teams take after their best player, so the leadership that Damian has provided has gone a long way toward giving this team what they’ve been able to do this year.”
Lillard averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists this season – both career-highs – to go along with 4.0 rebounds per game. He led Portland to a first-round win over the Clippers and has 55 points and 11 assists through two games against Golden State, albeit in two losses.
The Trail Blazers didn’t have much of a shot in Game 1, trailing 37-17 after the first quarter at ORACLE. Game 2, however, was a different story. Portland led 34-21 after the first quarter and 87-76 after the third.
Then the fourth quarter happen.
Portland was outscored 34-12 in the final frame and lost 110-99 to fall behind 2-0 in the series.
“That was a tough one,” Wheeler said. “Certainly they were within striking distance of being able to get even in the series knowing they were coming home for the next two and knowing they were still probably going to face a Warriors team that isn’t certain about when Steph Curry is coming back. So at least they could have put some doubt in the world champs’ minds a bit and would have beaten them for a second time going back to the one that they had during the regular season. We’ll see how they bounce back. That was certainly a tough one.”
Portland, it is worth noting, trailed the Clippers 2-0 in the first round but won the final four games of the series.
“I guess they can look at the recent history and say we’re in the same position as we were in the first round coming home for Game 3 down two games to none as they were against the Clippers,” Wheeler said. “Obviously a tougher opponent, but maybe they can try to recapture some of that same magic.”
Game 3 is Saturday in Portland at 8:30 p.m. ET.