The Portland Trail Blazers held off the shorthanded Utah Jazz to win their season opener 113-104 on Tuesday night. Damian Lillard poured in 39 points to “M-V-P” chants from the crowd, while Noah Vonleh surprised with a perfect 5-5 shooting night off the bench. Despite some expected defensive setbacks, the team appeared to be firing on all cylinders. CSNNW brings us the post-game interviews.
Maybe some other guys, but I’m self-motivated. I don’t need no one to motivate me. I wake up every day and I’m motivated, but (Lillard) is definitely setting the tone. I think it’s more for around the league, man, everybody know what he can do, man. We see him in practice. If he wants to take over a drill, he can do it, but obviously he wants to get other guys involved and he choose not to do that in practice sometimes. But we all know what he can do, man. You seen it tonight. He could do that every night if he wanted to, but the game is different. Sometimes teams take him out the game, trap him, doing different things like that.
What defensive changes did you guys make from the third quarter to the fourth that really were the most efficient in your mind?
We didn’t really make too many changes, we just started to get some stops. Obviously they were hot to start the game out and they came out in the third quarter and they got hot. Obviously the numbers play out eventually, but we got a little more physical and just made it a little more tougher.
1-and-0 start—I know it wasn’t an easy game to win—but does that kind of just get this season started off well? I know last year was a little bit of a slow start.
I mean, at the end of the day, all that matters is a win, you know. If you win by one point or if you win by 30 points, it’s just a ‘W’ in the column, so that’s all we care about. I know I’m not here to be pretty or be cute. We’re just here to do our job and get wins, man. That’s all that matters.
You don’t think you’re cute?
Oh, I know I’m cute.
I don’t call myself pretty, but I let the ladies do that.
We knew that they were down a couple guys, but they made us fight to the end and we can’t let things like that happen when they’re out-manned or they don’t have their three best players on the team. It is good, though, that we dug deep at the end and pulled it out. I don’t think vibes would have been too good in here if we lost the first game at home of the season. We pulled it out and we did a good job.
Not just losing first game at home, but you guys extend that streak to 16-straight wins in home openers. Didn’t want to be on that losing end of this one, right?
I don’t even think it’s so much that, it’s just so much more just we understand how important getting the ones at home are. I feel like you just always want to start the season off on a good note, man, so getting this win was pretty big for us.
How about for you? I mean, jumper was there, got in right into the offense… you seemed real aggressive.
Yeah, man. I just wanted to tell myself ‘Start the season off right.’ I wanted to come out and gets shots up and the first one went down, so that gave me confidence (to) just keep shooting. It was just my night, man, so I just kept firing away and saw the ball go in.
Damian is Damian, huh?
Y’all seen it hundreds of times, man. Another spectacular performance from him. Of course, you just going to continue to see that throughout the year, so it’s nothing new to you guys.
Is this the way you guys wanted to start?
We wanted to get a win. I wouldn’t necessarily say this is how we wanted to start from a total game standpoint. I think we executed at times. Defensively we had some lapses throughout the game, but overall you’re just happy to get a win on opening night.
Especially considering, you know, the streak coming in. You guys didn’t want that streak to end on you watch, did you?
Yeah, we definitely were aware of the streak. I know Dame seen and I seen it. I didn’t say anything about it until the game was over, but we weren’t losing on our home floor for the season opener.
What problems did they present, especially in that third quarter?
They did a great job of finding Joe Johnson in the post. He’s a load down there and there’s a reason why he’s been an all-star for so many years. He’s a good player. They exploited us there. Pick-and-roll coverages, mid-range—we gave up a lot of mid-range jumpers. We got to do a better job of chasing over the top—offensive rebounds were a big factor, finding guys, running guys off the 3-point line, and making sure we’re cracking down on the rotations.
Did it feel sort of normal to see you and Dame take over in that last three minutes?
I wasn’t surprised. Were you surprised?
I seen the look in his eyes. I knew what time it was. We knew this was a game we needed to win, a game we should win with them having three guys out who are main rotation guys, we took care of business at the end.
Let’s hear you talk about the bench. You guys had a huge advantage from the bench tonight.
I thought our bench was huge. A lot of guys contribute in different ways besides just scoring. Rebounding, the bigs set some great screens, Noah (Vonleh) was huge, Ed (Davis) was huge, Evan (Turner) distributed the ball well, and AC (Allen Crabbe) hit some big shots for us the entire night.
On the offensive end, I knew that we would be able to get good looks, but the things that we kind of screwed up defensively, I was just like ‘Man.’ I was watching on the screen at halftime before the coaches came in and it was kind of simple. Stuff that we shouldn’t have messed up. So we talked about it at halftime, we came out in the third, and they got it going in the third, so it was just a matter of us staying in it mentally and understanding that it’s the best league in the world. Eeven when you have good coverages sometimes, or a good close-out, guys are going to make shots. It’s going to happen. We stay with it. We got it down the stretch and we did what we had to do. We got big stops and we made big shots.
How would you describe what Noah did tonight?
He was great for us. You talk about guys coming in off the bench and giving us that punch and you mention guys like AC and you mention Evan Turner, but sometimes his name—and Ed too, I mean, huge for us—but Noah’s name is the one that might get lost when you talk about that. Me and him, we talk and joke around all the time. It’s time for him to come in and have that attitude, like, ‘I have a big role on this team. I mean something to the team.’ And he played like it. He got the ball on the elbow, he looked for shots. When he popped open, he took shots. He seemed like he went after every rebound like he does in practice. That’s the role that we going to need him to play throughout the season.
You talk about setting a tone and, late in the fourth quarter, showing a lot of emotion too. Is the emotional tone part of it as well? Because obviously it’s the first game, but it seems like that’s big.
You can’t force emotion or it looks fake. I think you got to care. If you want to be a good team, you want to win games, you want to take a step, you got to care. I think we cared. You look at Ed had a good defensive play and he came up with the ball and he got the ball and he slapped the ball, and that did something for me. I was ready to get back in the game because it showed me that he really cares, you know what I mean? Because he’s not a very outspoken guy, and when he slapped the ball and was like ‘Come on, man!’ I was on the bench when he did it and I looked at coach like ‘I’m ready to go back in now.’ That’s what we need. We got to play like we care.
You just had the second highest point total in opening night in team history—Kiki Vandeweghe—did you know that? What does that mean to you?
I didn’t know that, but, I mean, I’m just happy we went out there and handled our business. We got the win.
Dame, a lot of guards are intimidated to attack the paint when (Rudy) Gobert is there, but you went right at him. Did you see something?
Over the summer we got a guy that was working out with me every morning. He’s huge.
About 6’8”-6’9” and he’s going out there and he blocked some of my shots. So the whole summer I’m finishing around him and being tired and having to be crafty enough to get the ball up and get it on the glass and just feel it, get into his body, knowing when to attack this way and attack crossover the other way and turn his hips so when he turns his hips he can’t get off the ground as quick, laying the ball up off-time. Bigs, they’re great at timing your jump and when you give them the ball on the glass, so instead of me, like, timing it perfect, I do it off-rhythm. Like when I get on the wrong leg I’ll get the ball in the air. I was able to get to those spots and do that tonight.
Where’d you find this guy?
The team did.
What’s his name?
That’s my special secret. I’ll tell you all his name at a later date.
We knew coming in that they were a capable team. They defend well, they play hard every possession, they can offensive rebound, they got some guys that can get it going, but we made some mistakes on the defensive end. Some of it had to do with how alert we were in our coverages. We had some communication issues, but the most important thing is we got the job done and I’m proud of that.
How about your game tonight? It looked like you really wanted to attack tonight.
Yeah. Coming off a lot of the pick-and-rolls I noticed that their big was back—he was back in the paint. A couple times, I was ale to give him a hesitation and get him to come forward and get to the rim, other times he was back and I was able to pull up. With those coverages, I felt like way we started to move the ball and make the defense react once we got back to the pick-and-roll we were able to get good looks. It just came down to if we were going to get stops and then score, because we could get shots that we wanted but we weren’t getting enough stops. Once we got stops, we continued to get good shots and I think that’s how we got it done.
I know you didn’t want the home winning streak in home openers to end on your watch.
No. We got such a great crowd. Even moments tonight where they kind of had momentum I could just hear the crowd just itching to get involved, just getting loud, cheering. That’s what we needed. We needed that pick-me-up at points in the game. With a streak that long—the longest in the NBA—you want it to keep going. I was proud that we was able to do that tonight.
Dame, Ed said that it’s obvious that you made your intentions know to the league, that you want to win MVP with this game. Can we read into that?
I think that people talk about what Steve Kerr said and then they ask me and I said I wanted to be MVP and it seemed like I was seeing it everywhere, but the most important thing is your actions. I spent a lot of time this summer working on my game and trying to be a better player. We had a great camp, our team competed really hard, guys made it hard for me in camp, we fouled each other all through camp, it was a physical camp, so I feel prepared. The best way to show that I really mean that is to go out there and play like it. Tonight was a good start.