PORTLAND, Ore. – This is their new world.
The one with little reaction as Damian Lillard begins the season with a power surge of offense that ranks among the best in the history of Trail Blazer scorers, and there have been many. The one where the Blazers as a whole have a good opening yet still blend into the NBA scenery.
It’s different now.
The days of sneaking up on opponents are gone, replaced by expectations that didn’t exist a year ago at this time. That goes for CJ McCollum, who went from potential to actual with a breakthrough 2015-16 in an easy win for Most Improved Player. He’s making another commendable jump, only with little recognition. And the Blazers are a solid 7-4, mostly beating the teams they should and absorbing understandable losses. That goes, most of all among individuals, for Lillard.
“My second year we made it to the second round and then my third year they expected us to be a top team in the West,” Lillard interjected.
That’s not the same. The 2013-14 group, that second season, had LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews in the starting lineup. Lillard averaged 20.7 points, but it wasn’t his team. The next year, 2014-15, had a similar roster, even if a different vibe as Aldridge’s impending free agency loomed ominously. Lillard has never, until now, been the guy on a team projected by many to contend for at least a top-four finish in the Western Conference and home-court advantage in the first round. There is a different kind of pressure than before.
“There is,” he said. “More is expected from you. When things don’t go well you’re the first guy that they’re going to look to. But that comes with the territory.”
This is different than any time in his basketball life, actually, adding to the intrigue of the unfolding 2016-17. Lillard, after all, was barely recruited coming out of Oakland. He grabbed a scholarship to Weber State of the Big Sky Conference. He went sixth in the 2012 draft, a prominent spot but not, unlike a lot of other lottery selections, expected to be part of a new beginning for a franchise. Portland had a core.
For the first time he is the undisputed leader of a team with expectations. The Trail Blazers’ outcome is his outcome more than any other player and beyond whatever video game he is playing on the court en route to 30.7 points, the most in franchise history through 11 games — more than Kiki Vandeweghe as the previous No. 1, more than Clyde Drexler, more than Aldridge.
“At times it can be hard, when you don’t shoot well or your team has a losing streak,” Lillard said of owning the role. “It can be hard because I’m hard on myself. It’s not so much about everybody else and ‘All right, what’s Dame doing, blah, blah, blah, what’s going on?’ It’s because I’m going home and in my head the whole drive home I’m thinking about every play that I could have done something better. When I fouled and I didn’t need to. When a guy got by me. When I blew a coverage or when I missed an easy shot. When I made the wrong play. I’m thinking about it myself so it’s more about the pressure that I put on myself within than it is about on the outside. I think that helps dealing with it. I expect a lot of myself.”
McCollum isn’t facing that same scrutiny as the leader and the All-Star, but otherwise is in a similar place. He likewise received relatively little interest coming out of high school in Canton, Ohio, and played at a mid-major, Lehigh of the Patriot League. And, although the 10th pick in the 2013 Draft, he wasn’t expected to make an immediate impact. He dealt with a foot injury, a problem since college, came off the bench and finally got the chance to start in 2015-16, jumping all the way to 20.8 points and winning Most Improved.
That was on a team playing without pressure, though, in the wake of four-fifths of the starting lineup, everyone except Lillard, leaving or being traded in the summer. Now, like Lillard, McCollum has to continue at the same level amid while carrying the burden of expectations for the first time.
“But for me, I always expected to be in this position,” McCollum said. “So now that I’m here I just remember what it was like when I was showing up to the arena and not playing. When I was hurt and in a suit. I remember those feelings. So I just continue to work as if I’ve got my eyes looking ahead and just trying not to get content, trying not to get full and trying to stay hungry.”
The Trail Blazers are 7-4 as the Bulls come to Moda Center on Tuesday (10 ET, NBA TV), not a bold statement of their possibilities for a long playoff run, but reasonable. The wins have come against the Jazz, Nuggets, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Suns (twice) and Kings, the losses to the Clippers (twice), Warriors and Suns. Portland is not playing great, yet is mostly where it should be, with the Phoenix loss, in overtime on Eric Bledsoe’s buzzer beater, as the only result out of line with the standings or expectations.
The Blazers are in a good spot, especially for a team dealing with injuries to the rotation (Al-Farouq Aminu, Festus Ezeli), and are about to head into a favorable schedule with the Pelicans twice and the Nets and Knicks once each within six games after facing the Bulls. McCollum, having gone from 20.8 points in the award-winning 2015-16 to 22.1 and from 44.8 percent from the field to 47.2, is in a very good spot. Lillard, meanwhile, doesn’t have a spot. He goes wherever he wants and does whatever he wants.
There just isn’t much public notice yet while playing with expectations for the first time, their new world. It’s different now.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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