Okay I didn’t really try for more than about ten seconds on that “nickname”. Plus it’s hard to come anywhere close to the says it all, eye-popping badassery of Video Game Dame, or the fun wackiness of Baby Droppin’ Dimes. But either way you put it, this guy needs a friggin’ nickname. Because the Trail Blazers are blowing up right now and Damian Lillard is fire-flaming the entire association that neglected to place him in the defensive lock-down performance that was the All-Star Game this year (This was a real opinion someone had by the way. Analytics don’t work!)
Look, everyone knows the Portland Trail Blazers were not supposed to be a playoff team this year. Lose 80% of your starting five to free agency, including your consensus best player, and you are almost certainly heading for a rebuild in the hyper competitive West. While the Blazers had the promise of being at least frisky offensively due to the playoff coming out parties of CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard, this was going to be a team with two undersized guards and no experienced big men that was going to lose a ton of games 120-105. This was going to be a team near the bottom of the lottery with no incentive to win and enough cap space to take on some pricey contracts. Maybe even a team so bad they would easily recoup the protected first rounder they sent Denver for Arron Afflalo (Oh Goddamnit, they included Will Barton in that trade) as they began to sniff an outside chance of a top 5 pick.
It didn’t exactly turn out that way. Because despite being one of the only two teams in the league with enough cap space to eat Anderson Varejao’s contract at the deadline, the Trail Blazers are 30-27 and tied for the 6th seed in the East while the Philadelphia 76ers snapped a league record 28 game losing streak to open up the season (Haha, they say finally snap the streak like they were trying to do it). The Blazers are 3-0 after the All-Star break, including the impressive home win over the Warriors, winners of 6 straight dating before the break and have seen their point guard go supernova with at least 30 points in 5 straight games. They’re tied for 6th with the fading Mavericks, only 3 games behind the No Gasol Grizzlies, and have a matchup tonight with the Houston Rockets – another group struggling for the last couple playoff spots in the West and a team that the Blazers have absolutely OWNED this year (Okay, maybe not that badly).
They’re going to be underdogs in any first round matchup they draw, but climb up to 6th or 5th even and those become significantly more winnable than dates with the Warriors or the Spurs. (I did debate internally whether the Blazers might actually be able to keep up with San Antonio, at least offensively, but then I remembered that Popp would just move Kawhi onto Lillard and Portland would have no way to take advantage of the mismatch. And as for the line of thinking that you might want to take on Golden State after that Moda Center blowout? Yeah, calm down Soccer Moms.) Still, the Blazers do have an undeniable home court advantage and raucous crowds; no one is taking the brooms out on these guys and I could even see Lillard making life utterly miserable for Westbrook or Chris Paul in what would ultimately be a spirited first round out.
And that is absolutely fine. For this team to even make the playoffs, let alone remain competitive against some of the West’s Bad Boys, is a huge credit to head coach Terry Stotts and this unbelievable backcourt. Last April aside, McCollum has come out of nowhere to be on pace to challenge even Chris Paul from the midrange, while knocking down over 40% from 3. He slides down to point guard when Lillard is on the bench to run the offense and should be an absolute lock to finish in the top 3 for the league’s most improved player award.
Lillard is another story. And how this dude could have been left off the All-Star game again is just unconscionable. It’s not even just the guy’s handles, or his mean mug, or his incredible, Curry-lite superpower shifting defenses through his ability to pull up off the dribble and nail a 25 pointer. This guy has become a leader this year. For all the talk of a rift that grew between he and LaMarcus over who was the face of the franchise in that last year together, this run is beginning to put that question to rest. For all the talk of these guys being too young, and intriguing prospects like Mo Harkless and Allen Crabbe being too far away to contribute to a consistently winning team, these guys are putting their name out there behind Lillard’s bananas night-in, night-out highlight reel.
The rest of the schedule is difficult, to be sure, with a long East Coast road trip and two more contests against the Warriors and Thunder, and the Blazers will also have some serious competition from the Utah Jazz (another young success team deserving of an article) to stay out of those death-trap last two playoff spots. Hell, they may even see a regression next year, ala the Milwaukee Bucks, as a rebuilding team that skyrocketed up too quickly. But for a young group with stellar upside and leadership, a young group beyond fun to watch every night, with the opportunity over the summer to open up space for 2 max contracts AFTER paying Lillard (!!), these guys have the opportunity to join the league’s best in the years to come.