Despite Separated Ribs And A 3-0 Series Deficit, Lillard Insists He And Team Have 'A Lot To Play For'
After a stretch of remarkable good health over the last few seasons, the 2018-19 Portland Trail Blazers suffered a severe setback when starting center Jusuf Nurkic broke his left leg in a double overtime victory versus the Brooklyn Nets on March 25. But despite the injury, and thanks in large part to bolstering their depth by acquiring two talented, playoff-tested veterans, the Trail Blazers have continued to thrive through adversity, with their reward being their first trip to the Western Conference Finals in nearly two decades.
But to keep their improbable run going, they'll have to be the first NBA team to ever return from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series after dropping Game 3 to the Golden State Warriors Saturday night at the Moda Center. And if that task weren't daunting enough, they'll have to do so with their best player and leader suffering another ill-timed injury.
Trail Blazers point guard, All-Star and 2018 First Team All-NBA honoree Damian Lillard confirmed reports prior to the team's practice Sunday afternoon in Tualatin that he had suffered a separated rib in Portland's Game 2 loss versus the Warriors in Oakland on Thursday.
"I feel fine, it happened early in the second game," said Lillard. "I finished that game and played last night."
That he did, though many people watching noted that Lillard did not look like his usual self during Portland's 110-99 loss to Golden State Saturday night at the Moda Center. Lillard played just under 40 minutes and finished with 19 points on 5-of-18 shooting from the field and 3-of-9 shooting from three, six rebounds, six assists and two steals, which would hardly qualify as a "bad" game for most players. However, he did turn the ball over five times, finished a -23 and did not seem to have the same energy he typically plays with, especially in front of a home crowd hosting their first Western Conference Finals game since 2000.
Despite how he might have looked, Lillard insisted Sunday that while there is pain associated with the injury, he doesn't feel as though it's hindering his abilities on the court.
"I don't think it's something that's affecting my game," said Lillard. "Not really (limiting), just the pain from having a separated rib," said Lillard. "There's nothing you can really do about it. Just when I get winded, it's a little harder to breathe. Contact, when you're in there banging with guys, just normal stuff."
Lillard suffered the injury midway through Game 2 when, while fighting for a loose ball, Warriors center Kevon Looney, all 6-10, 210 pounds of him, landed on top of Lillard and midcourt. Lillard could be seen clutching at his left side as he walked to the bench after the collision, though he did return to the game and played over 42 minutes in what would eventually be a 114-111 loss at Oracle Arena.
The injury certainly isn't helping Lillard's performance, though he said any difficulty he's experienced in the Western Conference Finals are more due to Golden State's defense than his sore ribs.
"Obviously you feel it, but that's it," said Lillard. "But I think just sometimes I'm not looking at initial action. If I'm coming off a screen, I'm not just looking at my guy and a guy that's defending -- the big that's defending the pick-and-roll. I'm seeing Draymond Green, and he's behind that kind of like tracking my movements, so it's like a next layer of defense that I'm paying attention to so whereas I'm not, I guess, wanting to explode
and get around that guy because I see what's waiting for me... It's tough, they're doing a good job in their coverages."
Lillard has made a point throughout his career of not using injury as an excuse for poor play -- he's played through countless minor injuries and has missed just 25 games over the course of seven NBA seasons. If he decided that the injury to his ribs was too painful to endure, none of his teammates nor coaches would blame him for it, though none are expecting that to be the case.
"There's not much you can do to increase my level of respect for him," said Cj McCollum. "I understand who he is as a person to the core, so it's an unfortunate situation and injury to have to fight through, but he's a strong person, and understanding what's at stake, we're in the Playoffs right now, so there's no excuses and there's no way I feel like he can sit out of a game or anything of that nature. So we've just got to keep pushing forward, and as I said, we can rest in the summer."
Bruised and battered as they might be -- Enes Kanter has been dealing with a shoulder injury since the Oklahoma City series and Rodney Hood still isn't right after suffering a bone bruise in his left knee during Game 7 versus the Nuggets -- the Blazer would like to postpone that summer rest for as long as possible. Down 3-0, history says the Blazers, even at full strength, have no chance of rallying to advance to the NBA Finals, but neither long odds nor separated ribs are going to stop Lillard from trying.
"You look at the numbers and there's a slim chance of you winning the series like that, but we've got a lot to play for," said Lillard. "Obviously you never know when the first time it's going to happen, we could be the first team to do it. Also you don't want to go out being swept in the Western Conference Finals. Pride, being competitors, being professionals, we've got a lot to play for. We're not ready to just go out there and say, 'Oh, we did our best, we had a great season.' We've got a lot to play for."