The Trail Blazers take the court tonight against the Warriors in an 0-2 hole, and once again must band together to avoid embarrassment. This has been a common theme for Portland in the Damian Lillard era, as perceived slights have proven to be a solid source of inspiration inside Rip City over the past two seasons.
Portland’s late-season push for the playoffs has already silenced a few of Lillard’s critics, and ESPN’s Chris Haynes shared his own personal experience on the subject— crossing paths with Lillard after the Blazers’ lopsided December tussle with the Warriors— in his latest feature.
I've tried to give it to him straight from my time covering him during his first two years in the league. This time was no different. "You guys aren't making the playoffs," I said.
After a few moments, Lillard colorfully responded:
"Man, f--- that," he said. "We're making the playoffs, with or without help."
The Blazers were three games under .500 at the time of that discussion, putting Lillard in an awkward situation as the front man for a roster that owns one of the highest payrolls in the NBA. Eventually Portland hit its stride, though, and with the help of a mid-season trade that swapped Mason Plumlee for Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers took control of the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Lillard confirmed with ESPN earlier this week that he used the outside negativity as motivation to galvanize his teammates on their march to the postseason.
"I took the challenge of what everyone thought we couldn't do," Lillard told ESPN this week. "I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. For me, at that time, I was like, 'Right now, everybody can say whatever they want.' And if we didn't make the playoffs, they're going to say they had a disappointing season. But I was looking towards the end, saying, 'Well, we had our struggles. If we can pull ourselves by the time the end of the season comes and we sneak into the playoffs, they're going to say this happened, this happened and this happened, but at the end of the day, we still got the job done. A lot of other teams had the same opportunity, but they just couldn't bring themselves to do it. We did. There were never any doubts in my mind that [we were] making the playoffs.
The Blazers once again face a near-impossible task, as they must find a way to avoid being swept by the Warriors. Lillard doesn’t appear to be rattled after dropping the first two games of the series, and shared his thoughts on he situation prior to Saturday’s contest.
"We were in a tough spot in December, and we worked our way out of it," Lillard told ESPN. "We knew coming in it was going to be hard to win on their home floor. We had an opportunity in Game 1, and they closed the game out. In Game 2, we didn't play a good game. They took advantage of that, and they took care of home court. It was a blowout, but the scores don't carry over. We're not going to start Game 3 down 19-0. We've got to understand that, but we also got to really believe that we're going to win and that we're supposed to win. I believe in us. Always have."
The Blazers must find a way to harness both the home crowd’s energy and Lillard’s confidence in order to achieve victory, or they will run the risk of starting their summer vacation after only four playoff games.