Last season was odd for the Portland Trail Blazers.
They went 51-31 and made the playoffs, but lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies. The Trail Blazers could not capture the magic they had in the 2014 playoffs, when they won their first postseason series since the year 2000. In the 2015 playoffs, they struggled against the slow, grind-it-out pace of the Grizzlies.
Then, the offseason arrived, and players left.
Head coach Terry Stotts saw a mass exodus of his starting lineup: LaMarcus Aldridge signed with the San Antonio Spurs, Wes Matthews signed with the Dallas Mavericks, Robin Lopez and Aaron Afflalo signed with the New York Knicks, and Nic Batum was traded to the Charlotte Hornets for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson.
A 51-win team lost the majority of its starting lineup, making superstar point guard Damian Lillard even more the face of the franchise. The Trail Blazers accordingly rewarded Lillard with a five-year, $120 million contract extension, leaving no doubt in Portland that he is the franchise guy. Despite Lillard’s more visible presence on and off the floor, many analysts thought this would be a rebuilding year in the Rose City. Lillard wasn’t going to have enough help.
Fast forward to Jan. 15.
Lillard has the Blazers at a record of 18-24, sitting only a half game out of the eighth seed after defeating the Brooklyn Nets, 116-104, on Friday night.
Earlier this week, my colleague Matt Zemek wrote about Portland’s opportunity to make the playoffs as an eighth seed. Lillard is the main reason why Portland is in this position. Currently, the Blazers are on a three-game winning streak due to Lillard’s fantastic play, especially in the second halves of games.
Last Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Lillard hit five three-pointers in a span of two minutes late in the fourth quarter to give Portland a 115-110 victory. Lillard finished with 31 points on 8-of-14 shooting from the three-point range, to go along with nine assists and seven rebounds. Lillard did not stop as the week continued — on Wednesday night, he scored 21 points on 4-of-7 shooting from distance to lead Portland to a 99-85 victory over the Utah Jazz.
The common thread in the Blazers’ first two victories from the past week was Lillard’s three-point shooting. Friday night against the Nets, Lillard influenced the outcome of a game yet again, coming alive in the second half in such a way that Brooklyn point guards Donald Sloan and Shane Larkin had no answer for him. Lillard finished the night with 33 points on 5-of-10 shooting from three-point range and 10 assists. He was able to get able past Sloan with ease and had no problem dialing it up from distance.
Damian Lillard tonight: 33 points 10 assists 0 turnovers 13/24 FG 5/10 3PT
— Brett Hein (@bhein3) January 16, 2016
Lillard’s three-point shooting has helped him this season. He is shooting 37.9 percent from three, an improvement from his (season-entering) career average of 36.9 percent. If you look at his splits from this season, you know that third quarters are Lillard’s time. Lillard is shooting 43.8 percent from distance in third quarters this season.
If you want to look at the Trail Blazers’ offense — an offense without Afflalo, Aldridge, Batum, Lopez, and Matthews — Portland is averaging 101.2 points per game, which is good for 15th in the NBA. Last season, with those guys on the roster, the Blazers were ranked ninth in points per game with 102.8. Damian Lillard is keeping this team afloat.
Lillard and the Trail Blazers have taken care of the Nets. To finish up this current road trip, they have games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Wizards, both winnable contests. Lillard will have a challenge going up against Sixers point guard Ish Smith, who is enjoying a renaissance this season; on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Lillard will go up against John Wall, the Wizards’ All-Star point guard.
Lillard needs help from his teammates if Portland is going to reach the .500 mark before the season ends. However, with Utah, Sacramento, and Denver all scuffling, Lillard might be able to carry the Blazers into the playoffs. He isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and if he keeps up this level of play, the Trail Blazers will be the eighth seed in the Western Conference.