Damian Lillard was already well on his way to winning the NBA Rookie of the Year when he was selected to play in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge at the 2013 All-Star Weekend in Houston, but there were still doubts about what kind of player he would become. Sure, he was putting up great numbers, but some proposed it was a product of having no competition for minutes while being given a role that allowed for him to put up the kind of numbers necessary to win the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy by unanimous selection.
And even after a historic rookie season, there were questions of whether Lillard could really keep up the pace he set in his first season. Perhaps, seeing as how, he was 23, old by NBA sophomore standards, he had already reached his ceiling. And even if he was playing well, if the Trail Blazers were a perennial lottery team, what did it matter?
But while those doubt might have had merits before, they no longer do today. A year after being recognized as one of the best rookies via inclusion in the Rookie-Sophomore game in Houston, Lillard is now a full-fledged all-star, someone his fellow second-year players look to as a leader of their class.
“Damian Lillard, I mean, all the doubt that he had around him for being from Weber State, look what he’s doing now,” said Pistons center Andre Drummond, who was selected three spots after Lillard in the 2012 Draft. “He’s an all-star, he’s in three of the All-Star Weekend games. I told him this morning that I was real proud of him. He proved a lot of people wrong. I’m just proud to call him my friend and know that he’s doing great things.”
“I’ve seen his growth just from coming form a small school, big chip on his shoulder to obviously playing the way he did last year and taking his game and his team to another level,” said Harrison Barnes, the seventh pick in the 2012 Draft. “Portland missed the playoffs last year, one of the best teams in the West this year, he’s an all-star. I’m obviously proud of him.”
“One thing I love the most about (Lillard) is he’s humble, but at the same time, he still has a chip on his shoulder,” said Bradley Beal, who was drafted three spots ahead of Lillard by the Wizards. “He still feels like he has more to prove and he’ll never stop growing. I always try to compete against him all the time because I feel as though he’s somebody in my class who I can always compete and always try to be better than him. And he’s always trying to be better than me. It’s always good to be able to have somebody like that.”
“For (Lillard), I just think it’s about his confidence and him having that role of being a point guard on his team,” said Portland native Terrence Jones, who was selected by the Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. “He just has to play with that confidence, especially in the Western Conference where there’s so many tough point guard. I think he’s really taking that challenge.”
One of the things that impresses Lillard’s fellow second-year players the most is his rapid growth from small college prospect to a leader on an NBA team. Talent is a necessity for a young player when it comes to earning the respect of your teammates, but it also requires a certain demeneor, one which his peers would like to emulate.
“Just from last year … he’s growing into being a leader and guys are starting to follow him,” said Drummond. “Some of the stuff he’s doing, I want to be able to do, too, just how he’s a leader to his team. I want to start to grow into that as well.”
Lillard is able to recognize the respect he has among his draft class and the NBA at large while still remaining humble about it, which is one of the traits which has allowed him to be a leader despite having less than two seasons under his belt. He moved among his teammates on the 2014 Rising Stars Challenge roster with the same quiet confidence that he exhibits on the court, a confidence that comes with being on of the best young players in the NBA.
“I just feel like everybody that I was drafted with and the guys after, I feel like they respect what I’ve done,” said Lillard. “Everybody’s goal when you come in the league is to make an impact. You want to be Rookie of the Year and then you want to make all-star teams and you want to win championships and stuff like that. Just the fact that I was Rookie of the Year and now I’ve been blessed enough to become an all-star, that’s kind of the path that everybody wants to take. So I think, more than anything, they just respect it.”
But that respect and success can come with some peril. Lillard knows he won’t remain at the top of his class if he rests on his laurels, which, to some extent, makes his envious of his fellow second-year players in the exact opposite way that they’re envious of him.
“The thing about it is, it’s all coming so fast that I’ve got to keep getting better,” said Lillard. “I’ve got to be able to be consistent and remain at this level. For a guy that hasn’t been an all-star, hasn’t been the rookie of the year, they have
something to fight for, they have something to prove. Whereas, because I was Rookie of the Year and now I’m an all-star in just two seasons, I’ve got to keep finding stuff to get better at and keep finding ways to improve.”
Which he’ll need to do if he wants to add a playoff birth to his resume, not to mention a second-consecutive all-star selection.
MEMPHIS — The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t had much luck in Memphis over the last few years, be it in the regular season or playoffs. But their fortunes in the River City changed Monday night, as the Trail Blazers overcame a five-point deficit in the final 90 seconds of regulation, were the beneficiaries of basketball’s version of an own goal to force overtime and then proceeded to allow just four points in the extra period on the way to defeating the Grizzlies 112-106 in front of 15,892 at FedExForum.
“I was really pleased with our perseverance in that game,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “We just kept after it. We did a lot of good things, enough to win the game, but a lot of good contributions by a lot of guys and showed a lot of heart to win that game on the road.”
Portland is now 26-27 overall, which is a half game back from the Utah Jazz for eighth place in the Western Conference, and 11-16 on the road this season. The win is Portland’s first in Memphis since January 4, 2013, snapping a streak of eight-straight losses, including playoffs, and their 15th overtime victory since the start or the 2012-13 season. The Trail Blazers have won 11 of their last 14 games, with four of those occurring on the road.
Monday night’s game seemed destined to go to overtime, as evidenced by three of the four quarters ending with a buzzer-beating field goal. Between 17 lead changes, none of which were by more than six points, and 18 ties and it only seemed fair that Monday’s contest would last longer than the traditional 48 minutes.
Though the end of regulation probably didn’t feel all that fair to the Grizzlies or their supporters. Tony Allen’s free throw with 7.6 seconds to play in the fourth quarter gave Memphis a 102-100, a lead that survived a Damian Lillard three-point attempt with roughly 2.0 seconds to play and a would-be CJ McCollum putback. Both Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson would make contact with the loose ball as it bounced off the rim, but replays would show that it was actually Grizzlies forward Jeff Green who touched the ball last before it passed through the net as time expired. It wasn’t entirely clear what the call on the floor was initially, but in the end, Crabbe was credited with the basket, even though Henderson seemed to be the last Blazer to touch the ball, and the game went to overtime.
“I tried to make a play on the ball and it went in so they gave me the two points so I’m going to take credit for the tip-in,” said Crabbe. “I feel like I had a piece of the ball. I don’t want to lie, I saw the ball come out and I was down there. We can all just go back to the footage really and check it out. Like I said, they gave me the two points so I tipped it in.”
After going 4-of-12 from the field in the first three quarters, McCollum scored the first six points of the overtime to give the Trail Blazers a 108-102 lead with under two minutes to play.
“CJ McCollum was struggling, but over time late in the fourth into overtime, it was good to see him,” said Stotts. We needed every one of (his points). But he got on track, he got his rhythm on his jump shot and for him to fight through some of the frustration he was having throughout the game and coming out strong late was really a good sign.”
As was Portland’s play on the defensive end in the overtime. The Trail Blazers held the Grizzlies to 2-of-13 shooting, blocked two shots and forced two turnovers in the overtime period, with the play of the game coming with 10 seconds to play and the Blazers clinging to a 108-106 lead. McCollum had a jumper blocked by Green, which Zach Randolph securing the rebound before finding a streaking Allen for what looked like an easy game-tying layin. But the Blazers gave chase rather than giving up on the play, prompting Allen to flub the layup.
“I thought we played with a lot of grit and defensively we have really picked it up, getting key stops,” said Stotts. “I thought the play of the game was the runback by Damian Lillard and Allen Crabbe and Ed Davis and Gerald Henderson on the layup, that could have gone either way. That was a big time hustle play and it was a winning play, and I think we really locked in on doing those type of things.”
Green’s putback attempt would also miss the mark, Davis would grab the rebound and all that would be left is for the Blazers to make their free throws, which they did, on the way to the four-point victory. In a season that has seen the Trail Blazers blow leads for losses on numerous occasions, winning a close game after trailing in the fourth quarter seemed to be a demonstrable sign of growth for a team that feels they’ve left a few wins on the table.
“We know how to close games out now,” said Crabbe, who finished with 13 points, four rebounds and three steals after missing Saturday’s game in Houston with a bout of gastritis. “We know what it takes now. Everybody is digging down defensively to get the stops we need. I think everybody’s game has taken that next step. As the season goes along, I just feel like we know how many wins we can get at home, winning in these situations and we need to make sure we get these wins. I think everybody is just on the same page and we’re just playing hard.”
The Blazers were led by Lillard, who score 20 points in the first half and went on to finish 9-of-22 from the field, 5-of-13 from three and 10-of-12 from the free throw line for 33 points in 43 minutes. It is the 12th time this season that the 6-3 point guard out of Weber State has scored at least 30 points.
“(Lillard) was really good all game obviously, but Memphis did a good job defensively in the second half,” said Stotts. “They went small pick-and-rolls, they did a good job defending the pick-and-rolls… But Damian certainly had it rolling in the first half.”
Lillard also added five assists, four rebounds, a steal and a block.
“I think our team was excited because our last time in Houston, we let the game slip at the end,” said Lillard. “Our last time (in Memphis) we lost the game with 0.6 seconds left. We’ve been playing a lot better since then. We handled our business in Houston, we came out tonight, we grinded it out, we had a lot of things not go our way, but we stayed the course, we stayed together, we trusted each other on the defensive end of the floor — I think that’s what it came down to.”
McC0llum late-game flurry helped the starting shooting guard shake off a tough start to finish with 21 points and six assists in 38 minutes. Gerald Henderson continued a streak of strong play to finish with 16 points and three rebounds in 35 minutes. Henderson, Crabbe, Davis and Maurice Harkless combined to score 47 points on 63 percent shooting off the bench in Monday’s victory.
Meyers Leonard started in place of Noah Vonleh, who missed his second-straight start with a sprained left ankle, and finished with three points in 13 minutes. Stotts opted to use a small lineup for most of the game after Grizzlies center Marc Gasol left the game in the first quarter with a right foot injury.
The Grizzlies were led by 27 points from Mike Conley, with Zach Randolph right behind him with 26 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Both Green and Mario Chalmers scored 12 points off the bench.
Next up, the Trail Blazers return home to host the Houston Rockets, a team they beat to start the now-completed two-game road trip on Saturday, with a chance to get back to .500 before the All-Star break. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 pm.
It’s been a bit of an up and down year for both Maurice Harkless and Gerald Henderson in their first seasons as Trail Blazers since being acquired via separate trades during the 2015 offseason,
Henderson missed all of training camp, preseason and the first eight games of the regular season, a difficult hurdle for a new player to clear, even for one entering his seventh NBA season, after undergoing a minor hip surgery in the offseason. As for Harkless, he’s already appeared in more games this season with the Trail Blazers as he did during the entirety of his last season with the Orlando Magic, though he’s seen most of his statistics, from minutes to points to rebounds, diminish every month as the year has played out.
For much of the season, Harkless and Henderson have been in a competition for playing time, with head coach Terry Stotts playing both roughly equal minutes in the first half of games, with the second-half minutes going to whoever played the best in the first. That went on for the first half of the season until Stotts opted to cut his rotation from 10 players to nine, which resulted in Henderson’s minutes increasing considerably while Harkless was relegated to playing mop-up minutes or simply drawing DNPs.
But Saturday night in Houston, Stotts would need both Harkless and Henderson with starting power forward Noah Vonleh out with a sprained left ankle and Allen Crabbe, Portland’s top sixth man this season, sidelined with a bout of gastritis. They responded by combining for 30 points on 11-of-21 shooting while taking turns checking Rockets All-Star shooting guard James Harden as Portland defeated Houston 96-79 at the Toyota Center. It was arguably the first game in which both players exceeded the high hopes Trail Blazers fans had for the two athletic wings, a game in which they were menaces on the defensive end while managing to take advantage of the opportunities provided by playing alongside the likes of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the offensive end.
“I (Harkless) he was very consistent with (Harden),” said Stotts. “He had good length, he was really in tune every possession. Harden is a great player, he’s going to get shots and you’re not going to completely stop him but I thought he worked really hard on him.”
Harden finished with 33 points, but needed 18 shots from both the field and free throw line while committing a career-high 10 turnovers, due in large part to the effort Henderson and Harkless put in.
“Gerald had a lot of bounce,” said Stotts. “He’s been on a roll, he’s feeling very comfortable out there. I thought defensively, he was good as well, he had his stint on Harden.”
As noted by his head coach, Henderson played easily his best basketball of the season since the middle of January, which has coincided with the Trail Blazers winning 10 of their last 13 games. Whether it’s due to being completely fit after missing the start of the season or knowing he’s going to second-half minutes — or a combination of both — Henderson has looked more like the player who started 292 games over six season with the Hornets.
“I feel good. I think that’s how I’m used to playing. I feel good and if I go in the game I try to bring energy — that’s it — on both ends of the floor. I think that helped us win tonight.
“I feel good and if I go in the game I try to bring energy — that’s it — on both ends of the floor,” said Henderson. “I think that helped us win tonight.”
While Henderson’s production has become somewhat expected over the last month of the season, seeing Harkless go from playing seven minutes combined in the five games prior to starting the last two games in place of Vonleh has been a surprise. Harkless himself said he was a bit taken aback by his promotion, though it was something he had prepared himself for, even when he was only playing fourth-quarter blowout minutes.
“I just stayed locked in the whole time,” said Harkless. “Even when I wasn’t playing at all, just stayed locked in, stayed ready, just kept working every day. I knew it would come back around.”
He only got 16 minutes in his first start of the season versus the Raptors, taking just one shot and scoring just two points in the loss. But on Saturday, Harkless almost doubled his playing time to 30 minutes and made a much larger impression in the process, going 2-of-3 from three in the first quarter and 6-of-13 from the field for the game while grabbing six rebounds and tallying two steals.
“I definitely think I just played better tonight,” said Harkless. “Last game, I hadn’t played in six games or something like that, it kind of caught me off guard when (Stotts) told me I was starting. So I think a little bit of it was rust but tonight I just went out there and just played. Making those first two shots, that was big for me as well.”
“For a guy to go games without even checking on sometimes or getting in for the last few minutes of blowouts, he could have easily been in his feelings and checked out on us, but he’s stayed locked in,” said Damian Lillard of Harkless. “At practice when they get out there and play three-on-three, he’s playing hard, he’s competitive, he’s positive. He’s been himself. I talked to him, I told him ‘You’ve just got to stick with it. You’re a huge part of what we’re gonna do. Just keep your mind right and be ready because you never know.’ We had a few guys do down and now he’s playing really well for us. I was happy with the way he played tonight.”
It’s hard to tell what will happen to Harkless’ and, to a lesser extent, Henderson’s minutes once the Trail Blazers are back to full strength. But for the first time this season, the full potential of both players was a welcomed sight.
HOUSTON — The old saying goes that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If Saturday’s result in Houston is any indication, the Trail Blazers’ collective memory is well intact.
After losing to in overtime in the last game in Houston despite owning a 15-point fourth-quarter cushion, the Trail Blazers did a much better job protecting their lead in the second meeting, with the result being Portland besting the Rockets 96-79 Saturday afternoon in front of a sellout crowd of 18,308 at the Toyota Center.
“That was a really good win, obviously,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “I like the way we came out. Defensively we were solid all night, for the most part… They’re a dangerous team. They can get the threes going and I liked we kept our composure when they made their run.”
Portland is now 25-27 overall and 10-16 on the road this season after playing their last seven games in the cozy confines of the Moda Center. The Trail Blazers have now won 10 of their last 13 games and are currently mere percentage points behind the Utah Jazz for eighth in the Western Conference.
The Trail Blazers looked to be the better team Saturday night from the opening tip. Portland shot 52 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in the first quarter while scoring eight points on six Rockets turnovers to take a 29-23 lead into the second quarter. They’d start the quarter a 13-2 run to take their first double digit lead of the night and would go up by 21 by way of holding the Rockets to just four made field goals in the second quarter while turning six more turnovers into seven more points. Add with the Portland bench outscoring Houston’s 18-0 in the first half and it was easy to see how the road team took a 55-36 lead into the intermission.
“We played really well defensively, I thought,” said Damian Lillard. “We set the tone from the start of the game with active hands, getting our hands on the balls. We just weren’t fun to play against to start the game. That’s what we wanted to go coming out tonight and we did a great job.”
Portland would take their largest lead of the night at the 5:01 mark of the third quarter, though Houston managed to get that down to 21 before the start of the fourth. The Rockets would continue to slim the Trail Blazers’ lead, getting it down to 11 points in late in the fourth quarter. One can imagine there had to be a little nervousness on Portland’s bench after seeing two-thirds of a 32-point third quarter lead evaporate, especially with the specter of the last game in Houston still looming. But after a 10-0 Rockets run cut the lead to 91-76 with two minutes to play, Portland scored the final five points of the game to secure the 17-point lead.
“I don’t know if nervous is the right word, but certainly the way (Houston) won the last time here, I think that was probably in the back of everybody’s mind,” said Stotts. “They’re capable of doing that… I liked the way we kept our composure and pulled out the win.”
Six Trail Blazers finished in double figures led by Damian Lillard, who went 7-of-20 from the field and 3-of-9 from three to finish with 21 points and 10 assists for yet another double-double in 36 minutes.
CJ McCollum went 6-of-13 from the field to finish with 16 points, while Gerald Henderson went 5-of-8 from the field to 16 points as well. Al-Farouq Aminu filled up the stat sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block. Maurice Harkless, who started his second-straight game in place of Noah Vonleh (sprained left ankle) and saw extended minutes due to Allen Crabbe missing the game with gastritis, went 6-of-13 from the field for 14 points, six rebounds and two steals in 30 minutes.
Portland’s bench would outscore Houston’s 24-12 thanks in part to the Rockets not getting any points from a reserve until early in the fourth quarter. James Harden finished with a game-high 33 points with Dwight Howard adding 17, but no other Rocket scored more than eight points in the loss.
“James (Harden) is a good player,” said Henderson, who spent a good chunk of his minutes defending the hirsute shooting guard. “He knows how to score, he knows how to draw fouls so sometimes it’s very difficult to guard him. He got his 30 but we felt like we did a good job containing some of the other guys.”
Next up, the Trail Blazers head to Memphis to finish a quick two-game trip versus the Grizzlies at FexEd Forum on Monday. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 pm.