As a Trail Blazers season has turned from infuriating to intriguing with an inspired run out of the All-Star Break, two figures have navigated the team’s quest for the playoffs.
Coach Terry Stotts and captain Damian Lillard have led the Blazers into Tuesday’s showdown with Denver (7 p.m., CSN) with tactics befitting of their personality – Stotts more measured and subtle; Lillard more blunt and direct – with the contrasts in styles seemingly balancing the Blazers in the challenging waters of the season’s stretch run.
During the Blazers’ 11-3 march through March, Stotts has continually pushed the right buttons. Off the court, he delivered a key speech at a Phoenix breakfast, and at calculated times, he has shifted practices from game preparation to team building.
On the court, Stotts has stuck with Noah Vonleh in the starting lineup, a move that is reaping benefits such as a career-high 14 rebounds on Sunday, and he has
beautifully integrated newly acquired Jusuf Nurkic into the flow offense, with Nurkic becoming a force both literally and spiritually for the team.
Meanwhile, Lillard has stacked powerful performance upon powerful performance, living up to a brash promise to his team that he would “man up” when the Blazers reconvened from the All-Star Break.
“I’m a man of my word,’’ Lillard said.
At the nadir of their season, the Blazers on March 2 were 11-games under .500 and in 10th place in the West, three games behind Denver, and the debate in Rip City was whether chasing a high lottery pick was more beneficial than chasing the Nuggets.
On Sunday night, after their blowout victory over the Lakers, the Blazers were in control of their own destiny, and as they boarded their flight home, it was with words from their two leaders echoing in their ears.
“Our work,’’ Lillard said, “is just getting started.’’
Added Stotts: “We haven’t accomplished anything.’’
On March 12, a weary and emotionally spent Blazers team gathered for breakfast in their downtown Phoenix hotel when Stotts delivered a subtle, but powerful message.
The night before, the team suffered one of its most gutting defeats, a last-second dagger by Washington’s Markieff Morris that completed the Wizards’ comeback from a 21-point halftime deficit. Adding insult to the ignominy of the defeat: Replays clearly showed Morris stepped out of bounds while making his move to set up the winning shot, a fact the Blazers vehemently protested on the court, and later in postgame interviews.
An added twist of the dagger came later in the night, when the team had to board a 2 ½ hour flight to Phoenix for the start of a five-game trip.
The best of times, it seemed, were not ahead.
But the next morning, when the Blazers met to go over that night’s game plan against Phoenix over eggs and orange juice, any frustration and angst from the night before was quickly eliminated when Stotts addressed the team.
According to Meyers Leonard, Stotts quickly eliminated any sense of the team feeling sorry for themselves over the blown call by turning the attention from the referees to themselves. Much of the loss, Stotts told them, was on the team for losing a 21-point lead. The team, Stotts said, had to become smarter with their decisions.
“We talked about the two truths of that game: the blown call, and us being unable to hold a lead,’’ Leonard said an hour before tipoff against the Suns. “And we always talk about controlling what we can control, and that lead was something we could control, so ultimately, it was on us.’’
It was, in a sense, a flushing of the toxins associated with the Washington loss, and the bitterness of the blown call.
“After Coach talked to us, and got us thinking that way -- that it was about us, and not the refs -- I really felt like we moved on from it,’’ Leonard said. “We became focused on what was ahead of us, not on what had happened to us.’’
That night, the Blazers beat the Suns, starting what would be a season-changing 4-1 trip that concluded with impressive wins at San Antonio, Atlanta and Miami.
Stotts on Sunday downplayed his breakfast sermon.
“Honestly, I don’t remember what I said,’’ Stotts said. “I’m not one to dwell on too much, but I’m sure we were talking about the loss and preparing for Phoenix.’’
It was vintage Stotts: always in the moment, always deflecting praise, always even-keeled, yet always calculated.
“That’s part of coaching, no matter when it is in the season,’’ Stotts said. “You gauge your team and what needs to be said, what needs to be done at whatever part of the season, whether you’ve won three in a row or lost four in a row and are coming off a good win or a bad loss.’’
When the Trail Blazers entered the All-Star Break, they carried with them a vow from Lillard, their leader.
“You have two options: Run from it … or man up,’’ Lillard said in the Utah locker room after the Jazz manhandled the Blazers to lower their record to 23-33, two games behind Denver. “I’m going to come back and man up. Period. That’s what has to happen.’’
With the help of a week off to rest his body and heal his heart, Lillard has made good on his vow, playing some of his most inspired basketball of his accomplished career. Since the All-Star Break, Lillard is averaging 30 points, 5.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 49 percent from the field and 43 percent from three-point range.
What’s more is how Lillard is amassing those numbers. He has been electric in the first quarter, averaging 12.3 points in the opening stanza during the team’s crucial five-game trip, continually leading Stotts to point out that Lillard is “shouldering the responsibility” and “leading the charge.”
When teammate Maurice Harkless tried to explain the Blazers’ late season turnaround on Sunday, he started down a path of clichés and generalizations before stopping himself.
“And Dame has been great,’’ Harkless said. “I don’t know what he has been averaging over this stretch, but he has been great.’’
Lillard and Stotts haven’t done it alone.
CJ McCollum has been a picture of offensive artistry, and Al-Farouq Aminu a symbol of defensive toughness. Vonleh has graduated from project to productive, and Allen Crabbe has had moments when he has rescued the team with his shooting.
Up and down the roster there have been contributions, which might be another subtle nod to how Stotts has managed the season.
He has worked to keep the team both fresh physically and engaged mentally, whether they are streaking or slumping.
Last week, he turned a Friday practice into a shooting competition, inviting a playful and carefree air into the tension of a playoff race. The next day, he cut the team’s shootaround short, allowing the team to head home early.
“Days like that help build camaraderie,’’ Stotts said of the shooting practice.
Part of that decision is based on recommendations from the team’s Health & Performance staff, which among other things monitors players’ weight, heart rate, hydration, and sleep patterns on a daily basis to paint a picture of how the players’ bodies are holding up.
McCollum, for one, tipped his hat to Stotts for the Friday practice and abbreviated shootaround before the Minnesota game, for playing a role in his 32-point performance against the Timberwolves.
“It was one of those ‘Terry Specials,’’’ McCollum said of the Friday practice. “He does a great job mixing up the practice schedules and trusting our Health & Performance staff. If they say rest, he gives us rest, and I commend him for that.’’
On Tuesday, the biggest game of the season to date will tipoff at the Moda Center, and again Stotts and Lillard figure to be at the forefront of what has already been a memorable season series with the Nuggets.
In the first meeting, Portland came back from nine points down with about 90 seconds left to beat the Nuggets 115-113 in overtime in the season’s third game. Lillard was the hero, hitting the game-winning basket off a floater in the lane with 0.3 seconds left.
In the second meeting, in November, Denver built a 17-point first half lead, prompting the normally stoic Stotts to deliver what Mason Plumlee would call “a speech for the ages” at halftime. Evan Turner recalled that Stotts’ cowlick was “flying around” and his face became red during the speech, which worked, as the Blazers outscored Denver 36-15 in the third quarter in what would turn out to be a 112-105 victory.
Now, with Denver and Portland tied with nine games remaining, and the final playoff berth in the West hanging in the balance, the stage has never been bigger, and the words of the Blazers leaders never more important.
“I told the team we put ourselves in good position,’’ Stotts said after Sunday’s game. “But the hardest work is ahead of us.’’
Added Lillard: “This is where our work really begins.’’
Next up: Denver at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN)