Trail Blazers Prepare For Restart Knowing 'It's Basically An Eight-Game Season And We're Starting Out Behind'
The initial excitement regarding basketball returning to the Trail Blazers’ practice facility in Tualatin was short lived. Having a reason to leave the house after spending months under shelter-in-place orders was welcomed by Portland’s players, but after a few days of solo workouts that came with a number of stipulations meant to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19, at least some came away wondering if all effort was warranted, especially with no guarantee that the 2019-20 season would actually resume.
But with the news last week — long rumored but only recently made official — that the NBA season would resume at the end of July with 22 teams staying and playing at least eight games at Walt Disney World in Orlando, workouts that might have felt hollow a few weeks ago are taking on an importance.
“I think that's the only change, everybody realizing that it's a go and we've got to be ready to play,” said Damian Lillard on a Zoom interview after a workout at the Blazers’ practice facility Wednesday morning. “I think, just from being in the gym and being around our team, I think it's pretty obvious that guys have stayed active. Everybody is in pretty good shape.
“I think the only change that I think is visible is the fact that everybody knows it's real now. At first it was kind of up in the air. What's going to be the format? Are we going to be involved? What are the real chances of the season coming back? I think once we knew it was confirmed that we was coming back, everybody just kind of started to get prepared.”
Those preparations will continue to increase over the next week as the Trail Blazers ramp up practices prior to the team leaving for Orlando some time in the second week of July. Social distancing is still observed and contact practices likely won’t happen until the team arrives at Disneyworld, but knowing both that they’re working toward something and which teams they’ll be playing once they get there has a way of sharpening focus.
“There was just so many rules where everybody was just like 'Man, are we even playing? Is this even worth it?’” said Lillard. “And then when they was like, alright, we gonna be playing, this is where the location is and all that stuff, it seemed like it was rolling at that point. Guys was showing up more consistently, seeing more groups of guys in the group chat having a time to show up and stuff like that. Just having something to look forward to, something to work toward, I think that helped a lot for a lot of people.”
Though the Trail Blazers will have to make do with less once they begin their eight-game schedule on July 31 versus the Grizzlies, a team the Blazers trail by four games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Most notably, starting small forward Trevor Ariza will not join the team in Orlando in order to spend time with his son, which makes the already daunting task of finishing within four games of the eighth-place team in order to force a play-in series all thee more difficult, though the return of two injured big men will certainly soften the blow.
“I respect (Ariza’s) opinion, if I was in that position I would have done the same thing,” said Lillard. “I think this season we've dealt with a lot of adversity, so I think we've got to look at that and say it's a blow to our team, but we're also getting (Jusuf Nurkic) and Zach (Collins) back. That's going to be a big help for us. Hopefully we're able to move forward and still get done what we want to get done.”
However, integrating both Nurkic and Collins back into the lineup — Lilard said Wednesday he expects both players to start — and making up for Ariza’s absence will have to be done quickly, as Portland has little room for error with a four-game deficit, multiple teams either tied or within a few games and one of the tougher restart schedules.
“There will be no balance,” said Lillard. “We don't have time for that, it's eight games. Everybody is going to be rusty. We can't feel it out, we can't come out there and think we just have time because any other time we have this type of break and come back, it's like training camp, preseason, beginning of a long season. But this is like, it's basically an eight-game season and we're starting off behind. We got to come there and hit the ground running, not just physically trying to force that, but we've got to have it in our minds like, we don't have time to ease our way in. We don't have time to try and figure stuff out, we've got to come in assertive and aggressive and just go after it. And if we fail, we fail, but we gotta at least come out there with that mentality that we don't have time to kind of ease into it.”
Despite the Trail Blazers’ place in the standings, feeling torn between going back to work and supporting efforts of the Black community to end race-based violence — Lillard said he appreciates the NBA’s plans to put address social justice during the restart, but that it’s “not really good enough” — and concerns about the spread of COVID-19, Lillard is looking forward to the challenges that await the team in Orlando.
“I feel good about our chances,” said Lillard. “Getting Nurk, getting Zach back, we're a different team with those guys. Everybody is coming back rusty, it's a neutral court, neutral sites, so I feel like it's fair. I really didn't look at the schedule — who we play and all that stuff — to make me feel any way. The only thing I asked for was an opportunity to make it. We've been given that, so we gonna show up and do what we gotta do. Simple as that.”