Yesterday after meeting new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (more on that in a bit), Damian Lillard sat down with NBA TV’s Vince Cellini to answer fan-submitted questions in the “Off The Court” series presented by American Express. Lillard takes about his performance and that of the Trail Blazers this season, being named to the Western Conference All-Star
team in his second season, why Portland fits him, the importance of music in his life, 4 Bar Friday and a host of other topics. He also works in the word “hyphy” into the interview, which alone makes this segment worth watching.
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.”
When the Trail Blazers take the court for Game One of their Western Conference semifinals versus the Warriors on Sunday, they’ll be doing so in one of the most hostile environments in the NBA. Golden State has been all but unbeatable at Oracle Arena in recent years, so much so that they set the NBA record for most consecutive home victories before dropping two games on their home court in the last two weeks of the regular season.
But while the vast majority of those in attendance for the Game One Sunday matinee will be rooting hard for the Warriors, there will be a small contingent of fans at Oracle doing whatever they can to will the Trail Blazers to victory. Some will be transplants from Oregon, others will make the sojourn to the bay area, likely paying exorbitant prices for tickets, in order to see their team play in the second round for just the second time in 16 years.
And there will be at least one more group making the short trip from the Brookfield neighborhood in Oakland to Oracle to see Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard face off against the team he grew up cheering for as a boy growing up in the east bay. Sunday afternoon’s game will be the first time the Trail Blazers and Warriors have ever met in the postseason, which also means it’s the first time Lillard will have a chance to play in front of his family and friends in a playoff game at Oracle.
“First of all, the opportunity to play against the best team in the league, that’s the thing I’m most excited about, having another challenge where people are going to say we don’t have a chance,” said Lillard, who graduated from Oakland High School, which sits roughly five miles from Oracle Arena, before playing his college ball at Weber State. “That’s the most fun part of it for me. And second, being able to play in front of my family and friends. Since college they haven’t been able to see me play a lot and to be able to come home and play on the highest stage against the best team in the league, there’s no greater feeling and I’m really excited about it.”
Which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the 6-3 point guard. Lillard is incredibly proud of his hometown and takes every opportunity he can to remind people about the city that helped shape him into the man he is today. Be it the the tattoo of the Oakland Tree across his chest or insisting on having his neighborhood on the soles of his signature adidas sneaker, Lillard is all about repping where he’s from.
“Growing up in Oakland, it just made me tough,” Lillard told ESPN analyst Doris Burke. “You see a lot of things, you’re around a lot of things. You’ve got to be able to handle it. You’ve got to take it in stride. Everybody’s going through it, so you can’t feel sorry for yourself. If something bad happens you can’t be the guy that sticking out, uncomfortable. You’re raised there, it prepares you to survive anywhere. You can handle any moment.”
Which is good news if you’re a fan of Lillard and the Trail Blazers. While an NBA playoff game doesn’t pose anywhere close to the kind of life or death challenges that sometimes come along with growing up in a place like Oakland, the difficulties of trying to win a game against the defending champions on their home court, even without the services of reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who is sidelined with a minor knee injury, will be numerous. Winning a road game in the playoffs, as Portland will have to do sooner or later if they want to win the series, is always going to be hard, but doing so against one of the best teams in NBA history will be a vicissitude in excess of anything the Trail Blazers have experienced this season. Given that, it’s somewhat ironic that the toughness instilled in Lillard by way of growing up in Oakland could ultimately be what helps the Trail Blazers pull off the near-impossible task of besting the Warriors at home.
That would be just fine for those who might duck out of church a bit early Sunday morning in order to get to Oracle to cheer for their son, brother, grandson, cousin, uncle or friend from around the way as he attempts to take down their hometown team.
“Everybody is excited about what they’re doing, but everybody that I grew up with and people in my family, they Damian Lillard fans first, Warriors fans second,” said Lillard. “That’s just what it is.”