The first few days of the new NBA season have been rough for the Portland Trailblazers, particularly Damian Lillard, as they stumbled out of the gates with a 1-2 win-loss record before taking on the Memphis Grizzlies. They had lost at home on opening day against the Sacramento Kings, and then suffered a 116-86 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Lillard had 20 points against the Kings on 8 of 24 shooting, and managed only 12 points against the Clippers on while making 4 of 15 shots.
Their only win in that stretch came against last season’s NBA finalists, the Phoenix Suns, who have similarly struggled to begin the season with three losses over their first four games.
Lillard shot poorly against the Suns and finished with just 19 points and eight assists, which are more than decent by any other standard, except for the lofty ones that he has set since entering the league as the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
All in all, It has been a rough couple of months for the 31-year-old Lillard. He apparently played through an abdomen injury during last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, where Team USA eventually won gold despite him playing far below his usual level.
Already not in top physical shape, the situation was further compounded by persistent trade talks and rumblings that he wanted out of Portland. These were fuelled by a veteran journalist who claimed to have unimpeachable sources on the situation.
Lillard vehemently denied the rumors and obviously remains a Blazer to this day.
He continued his subpar play in the first half of the Blazers’ game versus the Memphis Grizzlies in what was their first chance to redeem themselves from their 30-point loss to the Clippers. Lillard had only nine points at halftime on two-of-11 shooting.
However, the second half was a different story. The Grizzlies’ star guard Ja Morant completed a three-point play with over eight minutes left in the third period to give Memphis a 62-58 lead. Lillard then regained his magic touch when Portland needed him the most, answering back with two step-back three-pointers which accounted for six of Portland’s next 10 points. This burst gave them a 68-62 edge that they would not relinquish for the rest of the evening.
The Weber State alumnus then scored five more points in the quarter to help turn a six-point halftime deficit into a ten-point advantage heading into the final period. It was a welcome development for Lillard, the Blazers, and their fanbase who all hope that his early season slump is now behind him.
Lillard was not needed in the fourth quarter and appeared in just three more minutes. He wound up scoring 20 points on 22 attempts with 10 assists which is still not at his usual standard but a step in the right direction.
Following Lillard’s 11-point third quarter, his trusty backcourt partner CJ McCollum broke the game open at the beginning of the last period. Portland led by as much as 26 points and McCollum wound up with 25 points and six rebounds to continue his hot start to the season.
McCollum, who tallied a career-best 23.1 points per game last year, is averaging 26.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and three assists over their first four games. If he can maintain this level of play and Lillard simultaneously rediscovers his touch, the Blazers can establish themselves as a dark horse contender in what seems like a wide open West as they look to repeat or even exceed their run to the 2019 Western Conference Finals.
Portland was once again without Norman Powell, who injured his knee in their win over the Suns last week, though he was questionable for this contest and may return in their next game – a rematch with the Clippers.
The silver lining of Powell’s injury is the extended on court time that it has afforded third-year forward Nassir Little whose defense has been stellar. Little’s impact goes beyond the box score where his humble statistics do not accurately represent his contributions to the team and the exposure may help build his confidence for when the Blazers need him down the road.
The season is still young and despite Lillard’s paltry first few games, Portland finds themselves in the middle of the pack with a 2-2 record. Although they have been booted from the opening round of the playoffs in five out of the last seven years, the one thing that they have going for them is their continuity and familiarity with one another in a league that is in a constant state of flux.
Their core of Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic has been together since the Bosnian center was acquired midway through the ‘16-’17 season and they hope that their familiarity can make a difference for them this season. On the contrary, a tumble down the standings and another disappointing finish may finally lead to the inevitable dismantling of this team which makes their early season returns even more important for their narrative.
This team has been as consistent as they come in the West over the past few years and now that Lillard has seemingly rediscovered his swagger, the Blazers hope that they can string together a couple of wins over the next few weeks with the goal of achieving at least a bit more regular season success this year and eventually a longer run in the playoffs.