Four games into the restart, he’s showing why. With a 125-115 win over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, his Blazers have effectively closed the gap on the Memphis Grizzlies for the 8-seed in the Western Conference playoff picture.
“Y’all know that I’m always optimistic and always see the best in situations like this, and it’s why I said what I said a few months ago when I said, ‘If we don’t have a chance to compete for a playoff spot, I don’t want to play,'” Lillard said. “Because I knew if we did have a chance to play for a playoff spot, it would look something like it looks right now.”
The Blazers entered the bubble 3½ games behind the Grizzlies, needing to be within four at the end of the eight seeding games to force a play-in series. In the play-in, the 8-seed needs to win one of two games; the 9-seed needs to win both. With the Grizzlies struggling and dealing with a significant loss with Jaren Jackson Jr.‘s injury, the Blazers not only have caught up but are in position to flip spots with Memphis — if the Grizzlies can even hold on.
“In this situation, we’re just getting an opportunity,” Lillard said, “and taking advantage of it.”
Lillard was electric against Denver, dropping 45 points and tying a career high with 11 3-pointers. There’s a history there, of course, with Lillard and the Blazers taking down the Nuggets in seven games last postseason.
“I jumped our guys at halftime,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “We were guarding Damian Lillard like we didn’t know who he was. We’ve done a really good job of defending him the past couple seasons, including the playoffs, [but] our pickup points were way too low. When we closed out, we didn’t run him off the 3-point line. Our hands were down. We weren’t up in pick-and-rolls. You name it, we gave it up.”
The Nuggets are dealing with a flurry of injuries and health-management issues, sitting Paul Millsap (rest), Jamal Murray (hamstring), Gary Harris (hip), Troy Daniels (hip) and Will Barton (knee). Center Nikola Jokic played, although Malone said he really didn’t want him to at all, which is why the Serbian big man sat down the stretch. It clearly gave an advantage to Portland, but Lillard said he isn’t all that worried about style points right now.
“We knew that they had a lot of their main guys out, but in the NBA, over my career I’ve learned those are the most dangerous nights,” Lillard said. “You come out there thinking it’s going to be an easy game and that’s why you respect your opponent.
“We did what we needed to do,” he added. “Some people might say, ‘Ah, they didn’t play anybody,’ but for us, we’re not going to apologize for a win. We’re here just to get it done.”
While other teams can afford to manage playing time and minutes, the Blazers are in a battle. Could playing these eight games with an urgency and intensity give them some kind of advantage in a playoff series?
“I’d love to find out,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
The Blazers’ four remaining games are against the Clippers, 76ers, Mavericks and Nets, and while they have positioned themselves well, the race for 8 and 9 in the West is extremely tight. The Suns, Spurs, Pelicans and Kings are all within two games of Portland, leaving the margin for error razor thin. Stotts wasn’t going to hazard a guess, saying it’s a one-game-at-a-time situation (while fully acknowledging the cliché).
Before the shutdown, the Blazers were mired in a disappointing season, dealing with injuries to Zach Collins and the slow comeback of Jusuf Nurkic. A season ago, they were in the Western Conference finals, breaking through to validate the Lillard-CJ McCollum backcourt and provide a road map to continue building a contender.
“I don’t view us as a team that went to the Western Conference finals, because you are who you’ve shown to be during the season,” Lillard said. “We’ve been unhealthy, that’s true, but we still have a lot of good players and we haven’t played to the level that we need to. But I think now, we’re starting to trend in the direction to the kind of basketball team that we want to be.”
The time off has given the Blazers time to heal and grow. Not only are they mostly whole again, but the development of wing Gary Trent Jr. has been a massive boost. The second-year guard has been a bubble star, dropping 27 on Denver, hitting 7 of 10 from 3.
It’s what Lillard had in mind in May. He just wanted a shot.
“I knew that once we got here, we’d be one of the teams that would take advantage of it,” Lillard said, “and so far we have.”