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Paul Flannery | March 6, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: It's Damian Lillard's time

It's Damian Lillard's time

BOSTON -- Back in late December, before anyone thought seriously about the Portland Trail Blazers as a playoff team or even really thought anything about them at all, Damian Lillard knew something was wrong. They were playing the Miami Heat. The game was close and Lillard was rolling. Naturally, it was time for Dame to do his thing. The pain in his foot wouldn’t let him.

"At that point in the game before I hurt my foot I was like, ‘I’m going to take this game over. We’re going to win this game.’ And then that happens," Lillard said. "I just felt it. I couldn’t move the same. I was nervous, and after the game I was having a hard time walking."

Lillard figured he’d have to sit out at least one game with plantar fasciitis. That was bad enough, considering that he had never missed a game during his pro career. Making things worse was that the Blazers’ season was teetering toward the kind of irrelevancy that so many had predicted for them. One game became two, two became three and as Christmas approached they were fading fast, losers of five straight and six out of seven.

But then something else happened. The Blazers began to click without their leader on the floor. They beat the Cavaliers by 29 as reserve Allen Crabbe poured in 26 points after drawing Lillard’s starting spot. Then they beat Sacramento and Denver as C.J. McCollum went off for 61 points. The Blazers won four of the seven games that Lillard missed, which was enough to keep them afloat. More importantly, they had become a group that was not just a collection of players built around their magnetic star, but a team that reflected what Dame Lillard is all about.

"It’s not just me doing everything," LIllard said. "I’m not carrying the team and having to do it all by myself. It’s not me. It’s the group. I came into camp saying we’re going to be better than people think. We’ve been able to do what we’ve done because everybody felt that way. Everybody came in and said, ‘I’m better than what they say I am. I can bring more to this team than they say I can bring to this team.’ They took it personally."

The Blazers are one of the best stories of the season. Left in the discard bin after losing three starters in free agency and a fourth by trade, no one gave them a chance at competing this year, let alone fighting for a postseason berth. The future looked fine. After all they had Lillard, a smart coach in Terry Stotts and a savvy GM in Neil Olshey, but the 2015-16 season promised to be a painful, albeit necessary step in a rebuilding project that was pegged in years rather than months. Now they look like a playoff team.

Lillard’s numbers this season are outstanding. He’s scoring more and his attempts and assists are up without sacrificing anything in regards to efficiency. His ability to take -- and make -- tough shots off the dribble puts him in a different tier than many of his contemporaries. As one astute observer put it, he’s the closest thing to Steph Curry that we have in the league.

But we knew he was capable of that. Lillard had been Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, an all-NBA performer and his work in the clutch is already the stuff of legend. What makes this Blazers team so successful is how the other players have raised their games alongside him.

"I think he’s playing the same way he always has," coach Terry Stotts told me. "He has more responsibility and he’s taking more on his shoulders. We knew his numbers would be up. More than anything else is his leadership. When we lost seven in a row he never wavered. Everybody talks about elevating his game, I think he’s elevating the team."

"His role is different this year than it has been in the past," Stotts continued. "Much like C.J., now it’s his time because he’s put himself in position to be successful. Same thing with Dame. The first three years put him in a position where he understands the league, he understands team dynamics and it’s just time to be in that role."

Leadership is an interesting quality in the NBA. The best player is often the de facto leader but talent alone is not enough. As young players develop and become stars, leadership becomes part of the deal and many a young player has struggled with the demands. Some are outspoken. Others are reserved. Either way they are scrutinized and studied, their every action and reaction becoming part of the larger team narrative. The real work is done behind the scenes, away from the cameras and the microphones, but their words carry weight both for the tone they convey and the atmosphere they create.

Listening to Lillard calmly dissect a 23-point loss to the Celtics, a few things stood out. There were no justifications given, even when they were offered and plainly obvious -- it was their fourth game in five nights on a long road trip.

Did you just run out of gas?

"I don’t think we ran out of gas," Lillard said. "And that’s not an excuse."

The outcome may have been unacceptable but blame was collective, not personal. If any group was singled out by Lillard it was the guards for not getting back to meet the Celtics’ onslaught, which forced their big men to over-help leaving them vulnerable inside.

They played harder than us.

We just weren’t good enough.

Those are simple pronouns, but their usage is not accidental. They are part of an overall vision crafted by Lillard to bring everyone together and keep them there. He has that indescribable quality that makes people want to follow, like a saner version of Kevin Garnett, earthy and real without the histrionics and f-bombs. When we talked in September before the start of the season, Olshey referenced Chauncey Billups, not so much in his game but in terms of his quiet charisma.

"Chauncey’s the greatest natural leader I’ve ever been around," Olshey said at the time. "That’s a guy that can walk into a room and literally not utter a word and you know that he has the command presence that it’s just understood. I don’t want to compare him to Chaunce because they’re their own people. There’s never been an organization that hasn’t been better by having Chauncey Billups be a part of it, and it’s the same way I feel about Dame."

This is not all about Lillard, but it all keeps coming back to him in one way or another. McCollum has become a 20-point scorer, whose playmaking ability allows them to play the same fast, frenetic style even when Lillard takes his rest. They play off each other and both are happy to defer when one or the other gets in a groove. Their big men are young, athletic and particularly adept at rolling to the rim off high screen and rolls, which is Lillard’s bread-and-butter. This is a close-knit group, and that is the clearest reflection of Lillard’s leadership style.

Most of them were on the Garden court two hours before their game against the Celtics, which meant they had arrived at the arena early. A small detail, perhaps, but emblematic of their serious yet relaxed atmosphere. Some players were shooting. Others were catching up with Tim Frazier, the 15th man who was caught in a numbers game after a series of deadline trades geared toward the future. Frazier is playing for the Maine Red Claws in the D-League, but he couldn’t help dropping "we" and "us" in casual conversation about his former team.

"Everybody just kind of clicked," Frazier told me. "That’s the biggest thing about this team. There’s no egos. It started off this summer and everybody’s just been there for each other."

The summer is when it all started and it began when Lillard arranged for a team bonding trip to San Diego. The point of the outing, Lillard told me before the season started, was not to learn about each other as basketball players, but as people. He wanted to forge connections that went beyond the court to arrive at a deeper understanding of one another.

Lillard has always been driven by the proverbial chip on his shoulder and in this Blazers’ team he found a collection of kindred spirits. Whatever was achieved in that impromptu training camp, Dame struck the right chord with his teammates and they with him. That trip was the beginning of his emergence as the team’s unquestioned leader. So much has been said, written and insinuated about the breakup of the old Blazers but one thing is perfectly clear: Damian Lillard was ready for it.

"I always believed that I could do more," Lillard said. "I always believed that I could improve and you can put more weight on my shoulders. The one thing now, it’s like, every time there’s a challenge in front of me I kind of block out the fact that it’s a challenge and I go after it."

Player after player will testify to Lillard’s influence; how he sets the tone with his approach first and his words second.

"We have a really young team and he’s done a great job of leading by example and being consistent with his effort and his approach," McCollum said. "Not only in games but in practices as well. He talks when it’s necessary and people listen. People respect him because of his accolades and his work ethic."

Veteran guard Brian Roberts arrived after the All-Star break as part of a trade deadline deal and it didn’t take him long to see it firsthand. His first night in uniform was the Warriors game, a night when Lillard scored 51 points and served notice to the rest of the league that the Blazers were for real.

"That game was an eye-opener just to see the atmosphere in Portland and to see how well these guys are playing," Roberts said. "That showed me right away, like, ‘Wow this team is really legit.’ Ever since then it’s been the same story. It’s impressive how the guys play together, how much they trust each other. How (Lillard) commands the game and how much respect he has with his teammates. He goes about it the right way. He knows what to say, how to say it and when to say it."

In many ways Lillard and the Blazers have already proven their point. They have achieved well beyond anyone’s expectations and established a culture that gives Olshey’s rebuilding project texture and shape. Their work, however, is far from done. They have put themselves in position to make the playoffs by taking advantage of a home-heavy schedule that was short on .500 teams, and it will be much tougher during the final six weeks of the season. The next steps will be difficult, but the Blazers have created a foundation that lies comfortably on Dame Lillard’s shoulders.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

It’s March, which means it’s once again time for NBA heads to warily cast their gaze at the college game, in all its floor-slapping, coach-stomping, billion-dollar glorification of amateurism. Roll your eyes all you want, March is a decent enough of time to get a working knowledge of the top draft prospects. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of some of the players we’ll be keeping an eye on this month.

Ben Simmons: We’ve spent most of the season operating under the assumption that the Australian lefty would be the top overall pick, but that may no longer be such a sure thing. Not that Simmons would fall far, but his outside shot is a major concern for teams and his LSU team has struggled to the point where the Tigers are a tournament longshot. That’s not all on Simmons and there’s not many 6’10 players who are as skilled and versatile. Still, there are enough questions about his game and the lack of tournament exposure won’t help.

Brandon Ingram: The Duke forward is thin. Really, really thin. He can also play. Ingram’s shooting over 40 percent from behind the arc and he’s long and athletic enough to finish at the rim despite his skinny frame. If anyone’s going to knock Simmons out of the top spot, it’s Ingram who is also a year younger. There’s a lot of upside to his game as he grows into his body, just hold off on the Kevin Durant comps. Please.

Jaylen Brown: The jewel of a talented Cal recruiting class, Brown and fellow freshman Ivan Rabb have the Bears playing well down the stretch after a shaky start. Brown isn’t a great shooter, but he’s improved his 3-point shooting in conference play and he can score. He has some rough edges that have not been helped by Cal’s spacing issues, but he’s 6’7 and can get to the basket and finish against college defenders. There’s not much consensus after Simmons and Ingram so Brown can play himself into the top-5 discussion with a strong March.

Jamal Murray: The knock on Murray is that he isn’t an elite athlete, but he’s a skilled and smart player who knows how to use screens and his dribble to get his shot. Murray’s been destroying SEC defenses and Kentucky looks like a team that’s peaking at the right time. Watching him and point guard Tyler Ulis operate will be a fun treat for pro fans. Murray’s upside may be limited, but he looks like a player who will have a long career.

Kris Dunn: A rare example of a first-round talent who returned for his senior year and improved his draft positioning. Dunn’s shooting is still suspect, but he’s a big point guard who should thrive in the NBA with more spacing and an up-tempo pace. Providence is a sneaky fun team to watch and coach Ed Cooley runs a nice offensive scheme, so make time for the Friars.

Notes: Dragan Bender is a likely top-5 pick who barely plays on his Euroleague team. Big men Henry Ellenson (Marquette) and Jakob Poetl (Utah) are worth seeing and Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield is a Player of the Year candidate who has made himself into a prospect. He’ll be a household name if the Sooners have a deep run.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"It’s one thing when you’re going into an arena and they’re booing you and you’re the villain. I love that. But to paint me as a bad guy? I don’t get in trouble off the court. I don’t disrespect people. Your kid doesn’t walk up to me and I’m the biggest (jerk) they’ve ever seen. I don’t get arrested. You can try to paint me as that, but anybody who knows me knows that’s false." -- Draymond Green as told to Marcus Thompson.

Reaction: Green plays with such an edge that his emotions can occasionally get the better of him. His halftime outburst in Oklahoma City has dominated the headlines, but he made a smart decision to publicly apologize and he and the Warriors seem better for it.

"That’s the greatest story in basketball. It’s not LeBron James. It’s not Kobe Bryant retiring. It’s Jonathon Simmons." -- Earl Watson on the Spurs’ 29-year-old longshot.

Reaction: It really is an amazing story. Do yourself a favor and read Jeff McDonald’s piece.

"We’re fooling ourselves if we want to be a great team the way that we’re playing. We’re fooling ourselves." -- Kevin Durant after the Thunder blew a 20-point lead in a loss to the Clippers.

Reaction: So, the Clippers entered the weekend tied with the Thunder in the loss column and things seem to be unraveling quickly in OKC. Positioning in the West will be an interesting thing. The Clips offer an interesting challenge to the Spurs and, losses aside, the Thunder present some matchup problems for Golden State. That said, OKC needs to get back on track before the playoffs start.

"We come out here after every game and we talk about, 'Well, you know, we're still in the playoff race.' No, we're not. We're not. What we are is, we're a team that -- when we have an opportunity to do something, we didn't get it done. So that is the bottom line." -- Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry after losing to the Rockets.

Reaction: Gentry apologized for that comment before their next game against the Spurs, but what exactly did he say that was wrong? The Pels have never really been in the postseason mix. Injuries have crushed them, but it’s time for them to take a hard look at what they’re doing and make changes if they want to maximize their time with Anthony Davis.

"Winning just brings good spirits. It brings attitude and it brings swag and it brings positive energy. It brings anything you could possibly want and that’s everything that we have. The locker room’s great. Guys are getting along. Coaches are getting along and we’re winning." -- Wizards guard Bradley Beal.

Reaction: Show me a team on a winning streak and I’ll show you a team with good chemistry. That’s the Wizards right now, and if anyone counts as a sleeper in the East it’s them.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

Yeah, it’s Lillard Time.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.

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