Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, who is a lock to make USA Basketball’s 2014 FIBA World Cup Roster, talked about some of the traits and characteristics that make Damian Lillard such a dynamic player after Team USA practice Tuesday on the campus of UNLV in Las Vegas.
“I’m a big fan of Damian,” said George, a two-time NBA All-Star. “Damian is a big-time player in this league. He’s just poised way beyond his years. He’s been doing an amazing job here at camp.”
Let’s state the obvious: the sleeved jerseys options that the NBA and adidas introduced a few seasons ago have not been well-received among the league’s players. Though one wouldn’t necessarily think that adding of a few inches of fabric on each side of a traditional basketball jersey would be all that controversial, that relatively small change has been roundly disapproved by most of the NBA’s rank and file. Whether it’s Lebron James trying to rip off his uniform mid-game or Robin Lopez tweeting that they should be put on a pyre and burned, reaction to the sleeves from the players has mostly been negative, so much so that it’s possible the jerseys get scrapped when Nike takes over the NBA uniform contract next season.
But you can count the Portland Trail Blazers as supporters of the sleeves, so much so that they’ve asked to wear their sleeve “pride” uniforms, better known as their “Rip City” alternates, for the remainder of their home games in the second round, and for good reason. The Trail Blazers are undefeated in their “Rip City” sleeve jerseys this season, a streak that has expended to the three playoff games in which they wore said uniforms in the first round.
“We haven’t lost in ‘em,” said Damian Lillard of the “Rip City” sleeve jerseys. “We typically play well in those uniforms, but I’ve always been a fan of the ‘Rip City’ jerseys, even before we added sleeves to them. It’s one of my favorite uniforms. Now that they put the sleeves on them, that’s just what it is. I like the look, it’s different.”
The NBA would typically prefer that teams wear their sleeved jerseys no more than four times throughout the course of the playoffs, which would make the next time the Trail Blazers wear their “Rip City” jerseys, as they plan to do in Game Three Saturday night at the Moda Center, the final appearance of the sleeves in the postseason.
But fear not, you lovers of sleeves and Trail Blazers victories, as the NBA will allow the team to wear their “Rip City” jerseys for at least the remainder of the second round. It didn’t take any haggling, just a simple request, which the league approved without incident.
“I reached out to the league and told them what jerseys we were going to wear for the second round and they said ‘Ok,'” said Trail Blazers equipment manager Eric Hallman, who is in charge of all things uniform for the team, via email. “There was no back and forth about if we could or could not wear the ‘Rip City’ jerseys.”
Hallman typically asks Lillard, as the captain of the team, what uniform he wants to wear when the choice is up for debate. And both due to affinity for the jerseys and the notion of not fixing what isn’t broke, Lillard has asked that the Trail Blazers wear the “Rip City” jerseys whenever possible. That decision has been supported by the entirety of the team, as they are all aware of their 7-0 record between the regular and postseason when wearing their sleeve option. After all, when going up against a formidable opponent like Warriors, nothing can be left to chance.
“I ain’t superstitious, but maybe we shoot better (in the ‘Rip City’ jerseys),” said Lillard. “We play in sleeves in practice every day. Every day you got sleeves on, so maybe that has something to do with it. We haven’t lost in them, so we’re going to take our chances.”
Of all the adjectives one could use to describe the 2015-16 Portland Trail Blazers, “resilient” might be the most applicable. Despite being the third-youngest team in the NBA this season, the Trail Blazers have been remarkably adept at bouncing back. Whether it was replacing four of five starters from the season before, enduring two losing streaks of at least five games or finishing the season by going 33-18 after starting the year 11-20 to make the postseason and finish fifth in the Western Conference, the Trail Blazers, under Terry Stotts’ steady hand, have shown a level of maturity with regard to the way they’ve dealt with disappointment that belies their relative youth and inexperience.
Which is good, because they’re going to need every last bit of fortitude they can muster to get over their fourth-quarter performance at Oracle Arena in their 110-99 loss to the Warriors in Game Two of the Western Conference semifinals. Despite leading by as much as 17 in the game and 11 in the fourth quarter, the Trail Blazers were outscored 34-12 in the final 12 minutes, resulting in an 11-point loss and a 2-0 series deficit.
“They’re not a young team, they’ve got a lot of guys that have been around, they’re very smart,” said Damian Lillard of the Warriors. “They see slippage and they go after it. If they see something that they can take advantage of, they take advantage of it. In that last five minutes (of Game Two), we just let our foot off the gas a little bit. I don’t know if it was fatigue mentally but we had some mental mistakes. One or two plays got them going, they got into it and the better they played offensively, they just got sharper defensively. That hurt us.”
While every loss stings, Portland’s loss in Game Two seemed to be more painful than most, for multiple reasons. First, the Warriors have lost at Oracle Arena just twice during the regular season, setting the NBA record for most consecutive home victories in the process, making the unfulfilled opportunity of beating the defending champs on their home court, and in a playoff game no less, a rather bitter pill to swallow, especially after leading for all but the last five minutes of the game. The Trail Blazers will have to beat the Warriors at least once at Oracle to move on to the Western Conference Finals, and one could argue that they won’t get a better chance to do so than they had Tuesday night.
“After that game, I was pretty hot about that one,” said Lillard. “Just because not only was it a great opportunity, but we had it. It was right there, all we had to do was four and a half, five minutes where we just got to be as sharp as possible. That was the challenge for us, just lock in even more, take it to a new level. Instead of that, we went a little bit downhill and they picked it up the way we needed to pick it up. We just wasn’t able to finish it. It sucked man. I was pretty hot about that one.”
And then there’s the matter of soon-to-be two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who has sat out the last two games with a sprained MCL in his right knee. While the Trail Blazers are in no way rooting for Curry to remain sidelined, the simple fact is they have a much better chance of beating the Warriors when the best player in the NBA is in street clothes. Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said the Curry would probably sit out Game Three as well, though it seems very unlikely he misses another game this series at Oracle, which, once again, makes the loss in Game Two that much more disappointing.
“I can’t speak on behalf of (the rest of the team), I don’t know how they feel personally, but it’s a game we should have won,” said CJ McCollum. “It’s unfortunate that we let it slip away. That’s what good teams do, they hang around and they finish off games at home. We’ve got to be better than that and I think we will be better. Got to move forward now and take advantage of Game Three.”
Luckily, the Trail Blazers have a bit of extra time to put Game Two behind them. While they have shown an ability to learn from their mistakes and move on this season, some players admitted that Game Two going down the way it did was lingering a bit. And in those situations, sometimes the best solution is playing another game as soon as possible, though that might not be the case this time around.
“Yesterday, I didn’t even want to see a basketball,” said Lillard. “I wasn’t even going to watch the playoff game yesterday until I heard Cleveland was hitting a bunch of threes, so I wanted to see for myself. But I didn’t even want to have nothing to do with basketball yesterday after that game.”
But after a day away from the game, Lillard and the rest of the Trail Blazers returned to their facility in Tualatin to prepare for Game Three at the Moda Center. If they’re able to make the improvements and adjustments necessary to get their first victory of the series Saturday night in Portland, they might truly be able to move on from what happened Tuesday night in Oakland.
“Ain’t nothing I can do about it now. In my mind, it’s over,” said McCollum. “It’s unfortunate that it had to happen but we can learn from it. We can’t sulk and moan and act like it’s the end of the world. We’re down 0-2 against a very good team. Now we’re at home, now we have a very good opportunity to take advantage of two home games and learn from mistakes in the first two games.”
The Trail Blazers held shootaround Tuesday morning at the Olympic Club in downtown San Fransisco in preparation for tonight’s Game Two of the Western Conference semifinal matchup versus the Warriors at Oracle Arena (tipoff scheduled for 7:30 pm on TNT and 620 AM). Some notes from shootaround…
• The Trail Blazers, after losing badly in Game One of their first round series versus the Clippers, made a host of adjustments going into Game Two. Whether it was having Al-Farouq Aminu guard Chris Paul, using Mason Plumlee to initiate more of the offense or giving spot minutes to Chris Kaman, Terry Stotts and is staff came up with a number of ways to mitigate L.A.’s advantages, which ultimately helped the Trail Blazers go on to win the series in six games.
So after the Trail Blazers lost 118-106 to the the Warriors in Game One of their second round series on Sunday afternoon, one might have assumed that Portland would once again make wholesale changes in time for Game Two Tuesday night at Oracle Arena. Turns out, that isn’t necessarily the case. While the Trail Blazers are sure to try a few different things, their adjustments will likely be a change of approach rather than tactics.
“The short answer to that is a little bit less only because it’s such a different style,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts of whether he’d be make more or less adjustments versus the Warriors. “So the adjustments that we’re making for this series is just trying to adjust from playing a team that’s so different than the team that we just played six games. Clippers play a different style of game, and that’s the adjustment we have to make.”
That difference in styles between the Clippers and Warriors makes Portland’s preparation for Game Two a bit more abstract than it was in the last series. The Warriors tend to play more of a freewheeling brand of basketball than the Clippers, which requires more nuanced adjustments on Portland’s end.
“I would say fewer adjustments for sure, because they play basketball,” said Mason Plumlee. “There aren’t a whole lot of plays, they exploit what they see as their playing the game. So it’s not a whole lot of scouting of plays, it’s more tendencies and personnel.”
The changes that worked versus the Clippers not necessarily working versus the Warriors is more proof of the individuality of every playoff series. The situations might be somewhat similar, but that doesn’t mean the solutions are the same.
“Everybody keeps drawing comparisons; you’ve got to let that last series go,” said Plumlee. “Every series is new, they’re a better team. This series is completely different so we have to make a point to come out and win this next game. I don’t think you can count on them getting up 2-0 and then giving you four-straight, so this next game is a big one.”
• When the Warriors went to their small lineups in Game One, the Trail Blazers countered by doing the same, with varying degrees of success. Portland played multiple lineups during the course of Sunday afternoon’s loss that have rarely been on the court together this season, if at all, including a five-man group that featured Maurice Harkless at “center” surrounded by four guards.
But Golden State has extensive experience utilizing small lineups, at least relative to Portland, and with the personnel on their roster reflecting that reality. So it’s debatable just how much the Trail Blazers should try to match those units rather than trying to take advantage of a size advantage.
“I’ll be dating myself, but when Seattle beat Golden State back in ’92, ’93, something like that, and (Don Nelson) was playing small ball and George (Karl) stayed big with Benoit Benjamin and Derrick McKey and Shawn Kemp. So (Seattle) beat (Golden State) playing to their strengths. I think the important thing is that you play to your strengths more than anything else.”
Stotts will likely continue to give some nontraditional lineups a try when the Warriors go small, but it’ll be just as important for their standard lineups to fare better than they did in Game One, particularly after giving up 16 offensive rebounds, which led to 17 second-chance points.
Said Mason Plumlee: “I think a way to punish them when they go small is to own the glass, get second-chance points and finish everything inside.”
• Though no one in the media knew about it until he answered questions in a decidedly raspy voice after Game One, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has been battling a significant chest cold for roughly the last week. While it stands to reason that an athlete, especially one playing at the highest level, would be affected negatively by such an illness, Lillard refused to blame the infirmaty for his less-than-stellar performance Sunday afternoon at Oracle Arena.
“I actually felt pretty good,” said Lillard. “Obviously being clogged up inside, it has you a little bit more winded than usual. There’s no excuses. The bottom line is my team needs me to perform better than I did.”
And it sounds, literally, like Lillard’s lungs won’t be as much of an issue in Game Two. The 6-3 point guard in his fourth season out of Weber State didn’t exactly sound like his normal self prior to Tuesday morning’s shootaround, but he said he’s making progress toward feeling better and didn’t sound as though his chest was on fire when making said proclamation.
“I feel better,” said Lillard. “Obviously still trying to shake it. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing the last two days, just trying to do different stuff to make myself feel better for tonight.”