PORTLAND, Ore. — On April 9, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard sent a text message my way. It was a picture of himself and his backcourt mate CJ McCollum high-fiving each other with the caption “Clinched.”
Lillard has a great memory. He was alluding to an exchange we had almost four months ago.
The Trail Blazers were a night removed from suffering a horrific 45-point loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 17. Lillard told ESPN it was one of the lowest points of his season.
The next evening, the two-time All-Star tried enjoying some leisure time at Spin, a popular pingpong social club in downtown San Francisco. I was a guest of the social club that night. He was seated in a private area at the bar, overlooking McCollum dominating the pingpong field. When Lillard saw me entering the club and approaching him in the roped-off section, he said, “Uh oh. What you got to say?
He cracked a smile. It was one of the rare times that evening. The night before, he had questioned the heart of his team and challenged them to compete at an elevated level. The Bay Area, specifically Oakland, is where he was born and raised. He was humiliated in front of friends and family.
Portland had lost six of its last seven and was an underwhelming 13-16 while possessing the second-highest payroll in the association.
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.
He understandably wasn’t in the mood to hear that, but he reluctantly asked for my opinion, so I gave it to him.
Then a couple of fans moseyed over, requesting pictures. He graciously agreed. He stood up and made their night. For roughly a minute, he was off the hook from hearing me out. He sat back down and could see me staring at him from the corner of his left eye.
We continued our discussion about some of the Blazers’ problems, but Lillard had heard enough.
“Man, f— that,” he said. “We’re making the playoffs, with or without help.”
McCollum then made his way over after completing his round of pingpong. “What are y’all talking about?” he asked with a smile. But he already knew the answer. Lillard filled him in. McCollum busted out in laughter.
“We’ll be all right,” McCollum said. He departed briefly to resume his game.
The next five minutes or so was pure quiet. During this time, a confused male clubgoer, who was observing all the fans scoping out Lillard, whispered in my ear, “You think Stephen Curry would let me get an autograph?” Had Lillard been in a good mood, I would have told this guy that it was indeed Stephen Curry. This wasn’t the time.
Lillard finally broke the awkward silence. “You’ll see,” he said out of nowhere with a deadpan expression on his face. He was looking straight ahead and not in my direction when he said it. I gazed at him, puzzled. He said, “You’ll be surprised by what I can handle.”
In February, Portland acquired center Jusuf Nurkic via a trade from Denver for big man Mason Plumlee, and the team took off on a hot streak. With a new inside-out DNA, the Trail Blazers owned the second-best record in the NBA since March 1.
Lillard registered career highs in points (27.0) and rebounds (4.9) this season.
On April 9, Portland clinched the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings. Lillard’s text was essentially an “I told you so” message. He still gets amped up proving the doubters wrong. I was one of them.
“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.
“I’m a believer. I don’t think people understand that a lot depends on what you put into your results, and I felt like we weren’t getting the results that we wanted, but we were working hard, we were locked in and we were trying. Guys really cared. And when you’re expecting things to just happen, then you don’t know what kind of results you’re going to get, but I was a part of what happened every day. I knew our team was really together. We’re not just saying, ‘We’re together.’
“I know we were really together, and we were on board the same thing. And as long as we stayed true to that, I knew that eventually, that’s the way life is. It comes back in your favor. Sometimes you’ve got to go through those dark moments. And we went through it, and we were true to it. And because of that, once again, we rose above the struggle and the hard times and we got it done.”
Now Lillard and the Trail Blazers face another dark period, and it’s inflicted by the Warriors once more. They’re down 0-2 with the series shifting to Portland on Saturday night (ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET). Golden State was without Kevin Durant, but Lillard’s squad still lost by 29.
The task of advancing to the second round is a strenuous process, one that can appear unattainable. But this is Lillard’s habitat. He relishes these predicaments. The odds are against him, but he has made it clear that he’s ready for the challenge.
Since the NBA instituted the current 16-team playoff format in 1983-84, no team has come back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series to defeat the No. 1 seed in its conference in either of the first two rounds, going 0-62 in those series.
“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.”