DENVER — Damian Lillard sat on a stool in a ballroom in sweatpants and sliders at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown on Tuesday with an iPad on his lap, about to head to a video session to comb through Game 1. The Portland Trail Blazers felt as if they had played well, but self-inflicted wounds — such as turnovers — and a monster game from Nikola Jokic undid an otherwise dazzling performance from Lillard that has seemingly become a standard.
He had 39 points on 21 shots, but he couldn’t produce any of the signature moments down the stretch, and there wasn’t much support elsewhere. As his star has exploded into a sun this postseason, there’s a belief percolating around the Blazers because it feels as if this is a moment for Lillard. He can carry them; he can lift everyone.
Except in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinals series at the Pepsi Center, he didn’t. He had just 14 points on 17 shots. He hit one of his seven 3-pointers. He had four assists to three turnovers. It was his worst statistical game of this postseason, by quite a lot.
So the Blazers lost, right? That’s probably not even the right question; how much did they lose by?
They won 97-90, evening the best-of-seven series against the Denver Nuggets at 1-1, and did it as a collective. It’s the kind of win Lillard relishes, knowing it’s all the guys he counts on, the ones he tries to credit when he claims the spotlight, that got it done.
“In this type of game that’s when you need a tough, group effort,” he said. “You just need a few guys to make a few big-time plays.”
Typical of Lillard, he spent a considerable amount of his postgame availability naming teammates. There were contributions both sizable and small, including 20 points and six assists from CJ McCollum, gritty interior defense by Zach Collins. Rodney Hood scored 15 points off the bench, including the biggest shot of the game, a corner 3 with 2 minutes, 2 seconds left to put the Blazers up 10. Lillard set it up, collapsing the entire Denver defense and kicking to the corner for a wide-open shot.
“Obviously, teams can not guard him with one man,” Blazers center Enes Kanter said. “They send double-teams, triple-teams. That’s why I say he doesn’t just make himself better, but at the same time he makes everyone else better around him.”
Though he’s known for the big shot, the big moment, it’s not unusual for Lillard to stand aside when necessary. It was a McCollum night, with the matchups directing the ball his way. The Nuggets, like the Oklahoma City Thunder before them, want to get the ball out of Lillard’s hands at all cost. Defenses can’t take away everything, whether that’s a rolling big man for a pocket pass or an open shooter in the weakside corner, but you can pick your poison and choose what you want to live with. And that’s fine when you can get the ball out of Lillard’s hands and there’s no other imminent danger. But McCollum is always a threat, and on Wednesday had the entire arsenal on display.
There’s no catchy moniker for McCollum in clutch time, but the trust built between him and Lillard is the driving force of the Blazers. Everyone knows Dame Time, but Lillard doesn’t put a vice grip on the ball. It was McCollum’s game to run in the final six minutes, with Lillard playing off the ball for much of it.
“Sometimes we have conversations, but it’s more feel now after six years,” McCollum said of how they communicate whose time it is to take over. “He knows when I want the ball, we can kind of make eye contact, and I know when he wants the ball. Other times we’ll verbally express it, or he’ll be like, ‘Go take it’ or ‘I need one, I need one.’ Or I’ll tell him, ‘I’m ready, come on.’
“That’s how we play, and tonight, down the stretch, we kind of alternated. A couple times I had it, a couple times I told him to go get the ball and take advantage of the matchup and make the right play. That’s the type of player that he is, the type of person that he is. If he sees I have the hot hand or an advantage, he defers. And if I see he has the hot hand or an advantage, I tell him to go to work.”
The Blazers don’t get away with Lillard’s off night, though, without some good fortune. The Nuggets shot the ball so poorly — “We couldn’t make a damn shot,” coach Mike Malone said — in the first half that the home fans actually let out some hefty boos. The Blazers made adjustments for Jokic, sending more double-teams and sticking to their plan of taking away his left shoulder and right hand as much as possible. They tried to make him pass and were willing to live with the results. Kanter played one of his best overall games, scoring 15 points with nine rebounds, but more importantly played quality interior defense, contrary to his negative reputation on that end of the floor.
Kanter has been a revelation for Portland, sprung unexpectedly into a significant role after Jusuf Nurkic’s injury. Kanter escaped basketball purgatory in New York, going from the end of the bench on a team that was tanking to the starting five of a playoff team, and in some ways, breathing life back into his career.
“This team, this organization, the city, the whole state, even the senator, it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my basketball career,” Kanter said. “I cannot thank them enough. That’s why every day I wake up and look in the mirror and say I should feel blessed.”
Hood is a similar story, cast off by the Cavaliers after failing miserably in last year’s postseason alongside LeBron James. There’s Collins, who is trying to find footing in his second season. There’s the other Curry, Seth, who drilled a critical 3-pointer in the fourth quarter. There’s Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, glue guys who fill the margins. They are a team of misfits and second (and third, and fourth) opportunities, built for adversity and difficult situations.
There is a fortitude that makes them special, and a trust and togetherness that extends throughout the locker room and entire organization. The coaches and staff all wore bow ties in Game 2 in honor of Jon Yim, who was seriously injured in a car accident in Portland last week.
Yim is the team’s video coordinator and player development coach and always wears a bow tie for games on Wednesday.
“I think the bow ties are undefeated this year,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.