Tanking be darned, the time is now for the Portland Trail Blazers to make a late stampede into the playoffs, at least according to Blazers superstar Damian Lillard.
In a recent piece for The Athletic, writer Jason Quick detailed how Lillard voiced a motivational message to his teammates about the rest of the season at Saturday’s practice.
One by one, he said, Lillard got into the ear of key teammates and delivered a message that crystalized his expectations, for himself and for them.
“It has to happen now,’’ Lillard said. “The urgency has to pick up. This is it.’’
Lillard said he would reiterate the same message in front of the entire team prior to Portland’s matchup with the Houston Rockets tonight. With 23 games left in the season, the Blazers stand tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for 11th place in the Western Conference, but — a rallying cry for much of the season — sit just three games behind the sixth seed. Especially with the addition of the play-in tournament, Portland’s season is by no means dead, and Lillard teams have a knack for making late rallies into the postseason.
So even though the Blazers are struggling to play defense, are stunted by injuries to starters Jusuf Nurkić and Anfernee Simons and key reserve Justise Winslow and are three games below .500, Lillard sees some similarities to the other improbable playoff runs he has led.
“It’s similar because we are in a position where we could make a real run,’’ Lillard said. “But it’s different in how close the standings are. In the past, it was ‘We are this many games behind the eight seed, the seventh seed is a stretch, but we can get eight.’ But now it’s like if we go on a run, we can get to five or four, and it wouldn’t be crazy at all.’’
Quick’s piece also sheds light on Portland’s decision to rest Lillard and forward Jerami Grant for Thursday’s 133-116 loss to the Sacramento Kings after travel difficulties caused a late arrival into California. That decision to rest the team’s two best available players sparked speculation that Portland was already giving up on the season. It would also seem to go against Lillard’s message of urgency delivered at practice days later, but it was Head Coach Chauncey Billups’ call to rest the two starters, not Lillard’s.
Billups said he held out Lillard because he knew his star was already stretched thin having taken part in All-Star Weekend, and he held out Grant because he was just clearing concussion protocol.
Lillard said he offered some resistance to the decision but was told there was no debate.
“Typically, it’s a battle, a back-and-forth, and usually they let me have my way,’’ Lillard said. “This time, that wasn’t the case. I don’t think I need to prove, or go out and be like ‘I wanted to play …’ or nothing like that. The history of me speaks for itself: I’m gonna play. And this was no different … but I respected what they told me.’’
If the Blazers do have another vintage, late rally in them, a win against the struggling Rockets tonight would be a much-needed start. Tip off is set for 6:00 p.m. PT.