Lillard, McCollum believe Blazers peaking at the right time

Adrian Dy on Mar 22, 2018 08:11 PM
Lillard, McCollum believe Blazers peaking at the right time
FILE - PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 31: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots the ball against the Charlotte Hornets on January 31, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

This time last season, the Portland Trail Blazers were struggling to make it into the Western Conference Playoffs. Ultimately, they finished with a 41-41 record, just a win ahead of the Denver Nuggets for the eighth seed.

Fast-forward to 2018, and it's a whole different story.

The Blazers are already three victories better than last season, with 11 games still to play. More importantly, they're now the third seed, with a two-game cushion over the next team, and they're healthy, in sharp contrast to other West powers.

Not bad for a team that was 16-16 late in December.

The Blazers didn't do a lot during the offseason. In fact, their major move, aside from two first round selections, was a subtraction, shipping out Allen Crabbe to the Brooklyn Nets, and then waiving the player they got for him, Andrew Nicholson, in a cost-cutting move. But by standing pat, Portland have the blessing of continuity, something superstar Damian Lillard believes is key to their current run.

"I think the biggest difference between our team this season and last season is our experience together," Lillard told reporters in an international call. "One more year of us being on the same team, understanding each other a little bit better. Also, just being a much better defensive team.

"In the past, we've had the ability to score points. Obviously, we're doing a much better job offensively this season because everybody's a part of it....But I think our defense has been a huge deal. We worked our way into being one of the top defensive teams in the league....Over time we've gotten comfortable with each other, and I think we're starting to mesh really well."

As of writing, the Blazers have a 104.3 defensive rating, good for #7 in the NBA. A season ago, they were 21st, at 107.8.

"I think we have become a much better team because of how we're leaning on each other and counting on each other," Lillard added.

The Blazers were riding high on a 13-game win streak, before they finally succumbed to the league leaders Houston Rockets, in a tight, 115-111 loss Wednesday (PHL time). Still, it's a defeat the team is taking in stride.

"We had the winning streak and we beat a lot of good teams during that winning streak....But I think playing against Houston, you know, the best team in the league right now, and myself and CJ [McCollum], our top two guys on the offensive end are not having a great night, and we still find ourselves down two under a minute left with a chance to get a stop and maybe go to overtime or win the game....I think we just have a lot of confidence when we don't have great games and our team is still in position to win the game."

That's a notion Lillard's running-mate, CJ McCollum, agrees with, giving extra credit to the squad's reserves. "The bench was huge, and they've been great all season. [They] extended leads for us, figuring out ways to contribute, whether that be from scoring, rebounding, or defending. I mean, even last night against the Rockets guys stepped up and were aggressive and made plays and impacted the game."

Against the Rockets, Lillard and McCollum combined for just 28 points on 9-of-32 shooting, missing all 12 of their three-point attempts. However, 22 markers from Al-Farouq Aminu, 17 from Mo Harkless, plus, 23 from the bench, gave them a chance to steal one from Houston.

Given Portland's slow start to the season, and their under-the-radar approach, it's fair to say that the Blazers are peaking at just the right time.

"I think sometimes people come out in the beginning of the season and they play great and look great. You always hear people saying they're playing really well early, and it's almost kind of scary because you want them to be playing really well late," Lillard points out.

"I think what's unique about our team is the fact that we started the season off up and down," adds McCollum. "We weren't playing our best basketball. We had some home losses. Then as the season progressed, we continued to get better. We got healthy and just figured out ways to win games."

Of course, the Blazers are not yet in the clear. Their next game is against the Boston Celtics on Saturday (PHL time), and their remaining schedule includes fellow playoff squads the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Rockets again, the San Antonio Spurs, the Denver Nuggets, and the Utah Jazz. With teams clustered together tightly in the standings, all of those matches will likely have a major impact on the chase for homecourt advantage. The Blazers, of course, are well aware of all that.

"With how good those other teams are," McCollum says, "it's hard enough to beat them in a regular game, let alone on the road. So the more games you can play at home, the better.

"I think we can improve on our late-game execution. Figuring out ways to get stops and second-chance opportunities and being a little more sharp down the stretch in games. That's going to be the difference in advancing in the playoffs and having a long playoff life, compared to essentially losing early."

"We know it's a tough task and the Rockets are a great team, and the Warriors are a great team, so is OKC. We just feel like the kind of basketball we're playing and how our team is clicking, we feel like we've got a chance," said Lillard.

"We're a team that's capable of winning the West. We've just got to go out there and prove it."

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