MINNEAPOLIS -- The Portland Trail Blazers ended 2016 without the services of Damian Lillard, who has been sidelined for the last three games with a left ankle sprain, though it sounds like they won't get too deep into 2017 before their starting point guard returns to the lineup.
On Saturday on the campus of the University of Minnesota, Lillard went through his longest and most intense workout since rolling his ankle in the fourth quarter of Portland's 110-90 loss to the San Antonio Spurs at the Moda Center on December 23. While he didn't go through most of what was a light practice with the rest of the team as they prepared for Sunday afternoon's game versus the Timberwolves at the Target Center, he did go through portions of the practice and went through a workout with assistant coach David Vanterpool.
"It feels way better, I went through a full speed workout with no limitations," said Lillard after Saturday's practice in Minneapolis. "I would have did our stuff with the group where we did some defensive stuff against a shell, not really full contact. I would have did that but I didn’t want to get in the way of any of the guys that’s going to be playing, so I stayed out of that. I did the shooting stuff before we did that, I did my own little workout at the end for the last 20 minutes or so, full speed normal stuff. It felt pretty good. Some stuff, it didn't hurt but I wasn’t really comfortable with it. It wasn’t completely comfortable, so just going to keep working out and keep working that swelling out, that soreness out, trying to get back. I’m not going to rush it, at this point I might as well wait until completely ready to go."
The Trail Blazers have gone 1-2 with Lillard out of the lineup, though they had lost five-straight when the 6-3 point guard out of Weber State went down with the injury, which makes it somewhat difficult to gauge the effect of Lillard's absence. While Portland has held two of their three opponents to under 100 points, something they've done infrequently this season, with Allen Crabbe starting in place of Lillard, they're also scoring 11 fewer points per game than their season average without Lillard.
But any way you slice it, the Trail Blazers are much better team with Lillard on the floor. He is still listed as doubtful for Sunday's game versus the Timberwolves and didn't sound particularly optimistic about his prospects of playing in that contest, as he noted he wants to mitigate the chances of re-injuring his left ankle, which he rolled on numerous occasions prior to the "tough one" he suffered versus the Spurs.
"I haven’t practiced, I haven’t gone through those motions that I go through every day," said Lillard. "I’m going to have to get back in that rhythm of doing those things and get comfortable with it. I’m going to make sure that I’m really prepared to go back out there for an NBA game, not just ‘I can shoot, I can workout.’ When I go out there I want to be my normal self and I want to be able to dominate a game, get this thing going back in the right direction. That’s been one of the best things about it is being able to not just recover but rest and get my mind right, be ready to come back and take this thing over."
This is not the first time the Trail Blazers have had to adjust to life without Lillard, as they played seven games without the starting guard, who was battling a case pf plantar fasciitis, at roughly this same time last season. Portland went 4-3 during that stretch and learn how to get along without their best player, which proved to be a good thing according to multiple players and coaches. For his part, while he noted he'd much rather be playing, Lillard said that perhaps sitting out a few games at this juncture might pay some dividends going forward as it did last season.
"I think when you’re just playing, playing, playing I don’t think things are as clear when you’re out there," said Lillard. "You see things different. Sitting behind the bench and hearing the coaches’ comments and what they’re looking for out of us and things we don’t execute, seeing how we do in certain situations when teams are on runs when it’s down the stretch, when the games swings for us, being able to see that from behind the bench, as a point guard, you have a better grip on it when you get back out there. It’s crazy for me because it seems so similar to last year. I sat out and I was like ‘Man’ and I came back and I was able to take advantage of my time out through the rest and also what I saw from behind the bench. I think I’ll be able to do those same things."
The Trail Blazers went 29-17 after Lillard's return last season and eventually went on to claim the fifth-seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Considering they're currently 10th in the West with a 14-21 record, repeating something similar to that performance once Lillard returns would certainly be a welcomed start to the new calendar year.