Portland's Yearly Playoff Push Starts Without Lillard

by Casey Holdahl
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Over the last decade, few teams have been as successful at making post All-Star break playoff pushes than the Portland Trail Blazers. And considering they're currently in ninth place in the West, one spot behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the last playoff spot, and have the second-easiest schedule in the NBA over the final 27 games, there's some reason to believe the Trail Blazers are in position to make yet another late-season rally.

But if that is to be the case this season, they'll have to start that push without Damian Lillard.

Lillard, who is averaging 29.5 points, 7.9 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 37.0 minutes per game this season, said after the team's practice in Tualatin on Thursday that he would likely miss the next three to five games with a right groin strain suffered in Portland's 111-104 loss to the Grizzlies in Memphis on February 12.

"I feel alright, I've been doing rehab since Thursday last week," said Lillard, who also sat out the All-Star Game and the Three-Point Shootout at the 2020 All-Star Weekend due to the injury. "And it's gotten a lot better but I think it's just one of those things where you start feeling better right away but I think that last 15, 10 percent is what takes the time, that's what takes so long."

Lillard underwent an MRI on February 13 in Chicago that confirmed the groin strain and at that point the team said his status would be re-evaluated in a week. The 6-3 point guard initially stated he would be back in time to play in Portland's first post All-Star break contest, a nationally-televised game versus the New Orleans Pelicans Friday night at the Moda Center, but the nature of the injury precluded such a quick turnaround.

"It's just one of those things that you can't just say 'Alright, I'm gonna play through it' because it could be bad," said Lillard, who sat out two games in November with back spasms. "So you've got to take that time, that's pretty much all you can do, rehab, all the training. I've been doing all the training I could possibly do, so I'm sore as hell but I got to take time off to let it heal completely. But once that happens, I'll be back out there."

Though the question now becomes: Where will the Trail Blazers be when Lillard is able to return? At 25-31 with 27 games to play, the Trail Blazers have had a difficult time stringing together wins this season even with Lillard turning in an MVP-caliber campaign, so turning their season around with their best player in street clothes would likely qualify as their most impressive late-season run under Terry Stotts.

"Just play hard, that's the biggest thing," said CJ McCollum of what they need to do to make up for the loss of Lillard. "Dame does a lot for us offensively, calling plays, facilitating and scoring, so I'll have to do a little bit more of that. But at the same time, it's like one person isn't going to replace his production. We've got to all be better."

Despite injuries, both to Lillard and those which have accumulated over the court of the season -- McCollum is the only starter from last year's team currently on the active list -- there is some cause for optimism. The Trail Blazers play more home games in the final two months of the regular season than any other Western Conference team and the Grizzlies, who are four games up in the loss column on the Trail Blazers for eighth place, have one of the toughest remaining schedules and play 16 of their 28 remaining games on the road. What's more, two of those road game are versus the Trail Blazers, giving Portland a chance to make up two full games in the event that they're able to defend homecourt.

But if they're not able to come up with at least a few wins in Lillard's absence, any assistance that comes via breaks in the schedule won't be enough to make a difference. And the Pelicans, a team that has won all three previous meetings versus the Trail Blazers this season, are just a half game behind Portland and have one of the easiest remaining schedules, so just passing the Grizzlies, a difficult task in and of itself, might not be enough to make the postseason.

So what little margin of error the Blazers had with Lillard in the lineup, if any existed in the first place, is gone with him out of it. If they're able to go .500 or better over the next three to give games without their starting point guard, they might very well put themselves in position to get into the Top 8 when he returns. If not, Portland's chances of making the postseason for the seventh straight year could be nearly snuffed out before Lillard gets back on the court.

"This is it, it's all or nothing. Earlier in the year we was like 'Oh, we got 50 games left. We got 40 games left.' Now it's 26 games, 15 at home and we need 16 to 20 of them and that's just what it is," said Lillard. "I expect everybody to lift up their level of play in my absence just because of what we need to happen. We don't really have a choice right now so I wouldn't expect anything less."

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