Lillard, McCollum look to erase last season’s playoff exit
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — There’s a big difference between comfort and complacency for Damian Lillard.
Yes, the Portland Trail Blazers return all five starters from a team that finished third in the Western Conference. So there’s a level of ease among the players.
But their season went sideways in the first round of the playoffs, when Portland was swept by New Orleans. Lillard said the Blazers have to guard against allowing that to happen again.
“I don’t see how we could be complacent about anything,” he said. “I think it’s a level of comfort with each other we’ve you know been teammates for a few years now we know each other pretty well so I think there is comfort. But I don’t think we’re in a position to be complacent.”
And certainly this is true in the loaded West, with the defending champion Warriors, talented Rockets, as the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers.
The Blazers went 49-33 last season and secured the third seed in the conference, earning a trip to the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Portland was boosted by a 13-game winning streak that started with a victory over Golden State just before the All-Star break.
But the stumble against the Pelicans in the playoffs was unexpected, and still clearly stings Lillard.
“Just going out like that,” he said. “I think we were riding high — we had a great season, we got home court for the first time since I’ve been here. I think everybody had great expectations you know for the postseason, and they just fell apart.”
The Blazers made few changes during the offseason. Ed Davis, the team’s spark of the bench, went to the Brooklyn, while guard Shabazz Napier, who spelled Lillard, also went to the Nets.
Portland added Seth Curry, Steph’s younger brother, who didn’t play last season because of a leg injury but averaged 12.8 points and 2.7 assists in 70 games with the Dallas Mavericks the year before.
Little movement in the offseason has been somewhat of a trend for Portland. Last year 12 players returned, this year it’s 11.
“The thing about this team is we’ve got a lot of guys coming back, we had a good season,” coach Terry Stotts said. “It’s going to be a challenging season because of the nature of the Western Conference. But I like our team, I like our players. We’ve done a lot of good things in the past.”
Some other things to know about the Blazers:
It’s going to look much the same as last year with Lillard and CJ McCollum in the backcourt, Jusuf Nurkic at center and Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless at forward. However, Harkless is coming off left knee surgery in March and tweaked an ankle during the preseason.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Coach Terry Stotts said the team has to guard against the slow starts that have plagued the Blazers the last two seasons.
“The disappointing thing for me the last two years is that we haven’t gotten off to good starts. In January we’re below .500, so it (the continuity) hasn’t manifested itself into early season success, which you would think having that carry-over would. We don’t have that luxury this year,” the coach said.
Portland’s top draft pick this year was guard Anfernee Simons, taken with the 24th overall pick out of IMG Academy in Florida. Simons originally committed to Louisville but backed out after Rick Pitino was fired. He is the first NBA player since 2005 to be drafted without college experience. He was eligible for the draft because he had turned 19 and was a year removed from high school.
Zach Collins appears poised for a breakout in his second season. The 7-footer out of Gonzaga performed well on defense in the NBA Summer League despite injuring his ankle.
“The challenging thing for Zach this year is that he’ll be matched up with different players this year. It’s our responsibility to find out what works best,” Stotts said.
The Trail Blazers have one of the best backcourts in the league with Lillard and McCollum, but they’re up against an unforgiving conference, sitting in a crowded group sitting just below the sure-bets. Expect a sixth straight playoff berth.
Lillard believes the key is focus.
“I want to get back to the playoffs and have a better performance but like I said it’s a super, super tough Western Conference so we’ve got to focus on what’s in front of us each game in a regular season until we get to that position,” Lillard said.