Blazers Rewarded For Enduring 'The Darkest Times' With A Trip To the Western Conference Finals

by Casey Holdahl
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By all accounts, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard did not have one of his best statistical performances in Portland's 100-96 victory versus the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 Sunday afternoon at the Pepsi Center.

He made just three of his 17 field goal attempts for 13 points, though he did come within a few assists of a triple-double with 10 rebounds and eight assists. He also tallied three steals and turned the ball over just once -- Portland as a team committed just four turnovers -- and was a +8 in 45 minutes, so it would be inaccurate to dub it a "bad" performance, but it certainly wasn't up to his lofty offensive standards.

But the work that Lillard has put in keeping the Trail Blazers together ever since they were swept by the Pelicans in the first round of the 2018 Postseason was one of the main reasons Portland was able to come back from a 17-point deficit to defeat Denver on their home floor. CJ McCollum's 37 points on 17-of-29 shooting and Evan Turner's late-game execution were of utmost importance, but Lillard remaining steadfast in his belief that this iteration of the Portland Trail Blazers were better than they had shown themselves to be over the course of back-to-back postseason sweeps is one of the only reasons the team was in their current position in the first place.

So as he walked off the court to join his team, one that he had believed in so strongly, in the locker room, Lillard started to get well up. It was only for a moment, but after enduring a year of doubt, he allowed himself the chance to get caught in the moment.

"I was telling people, after back-to-back sweeps, everybody was like 'Where do you go?'" said Lillard. "Everybody wanted to make us feel defeated and put us down, cross us out. 'Dame and CJ can't do this,' all this stuff. I just kept our message to our team, to our coaches, to the media, to the fans I just kept saying 'We've just got to stay the course.' When you go through stuff like that and you keep working hard, you stay together, you stick with it, there's something waiting for you in the end."

In this case, that end is the Trail Blazers' first trip to the Western Conference Finals in nearly two decades. That's not to say he nor the team are satisfied with just making it to the conference finals, where they'll face the one-seed Golden State Warriors, but winning a Game 7 on the road, in a game in which they trailed by 17 points, after their starting center and arguably their second-best player went down with a gruesome injury served as validation for the time and effort invested in Portland when others suggested he'd be better off somewhere else.

"When people don't put the time in, they not truly together as a group, it don't happen for them," said Lillard. "But everything people know about us, that's who we are as a group. We together, we care about each other, we work hard, we the sum of our parts. And we went through two tough, tough teams. OKC and Denver, that's a tough route. Now we got the Warriors."

Whereas Portland's victory in five games versus the Thunder in the first round seemed like a confirmation of Lillard's individual skills and status as one of the NBA's elite players -- ending a series with a 37-foot buzzer-beater will do that -- defeating the two-seed Nuggets in seven games served as as more of a reminder that the 2018-19 Trail Blazers are a true team in every sense of the word. They didn't quit (winning Game 3 in four overtimes), they didn't let one poor performance (getting blown out in Game 5) deter them from their goal, they stepped in and performed when others couldn't (Rodney Hood stepping in for Moe Harkless, and then Harkless doing the same for Hood when he suffered a knee injury in the third quarter of Game 7) and most of all, they stayed together.

So while Lillard's individual performance in Game 7 won't go down as the reasons the Blazers advanced, his unwavering belief over the last 13 months that better days were ahead should.

"We're able to do stuff like this because of the way our culture is and because of us being committed, even through the darkest times," said Lillard. "When you go through the darkest times and you stay true to it and keep going, this is what happens. You get a real shot."


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