After losing four starters and their sixth man over the summer, it seems so unlikely insane that the Portland Trail Blazers are currently tied for the sixth seed in the Western Conference. The reason why Portland is the hottest team in the league aside from Golden State is the play of its backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, which has quickly become one of the league’s elite guard pairings.
The Blazers have now won 10 of their last 12 and 18 of 22 behind Lillard and McCollum, who spearhead an offense ranked in the top 10 in both scoring and efficiency and third in made 3-pointers per game.
“The goal’s been to make the playoffs from the beginning,” said head coach Terry Stotts, who was named the conference’s coach of the month for February. That goal seemed laughable at the beginning of the season, but Stotts said that Lillard taking on the team’s leadership role— and his improvement in that role— has really helped this team move forward.
But in terms of improvement on Portland, no one will dispute that McCollum’s surpasses all others. After playing fewer than 16 minutes per contest last season, just look at the quantum leaps he’s made statistically.
|McCollum||Min||FG %||3 FG %||Pts||Ast||Reb||TS %||PER||WS||WS/48|
McCollum’s shooting percentages are remarkably similar to last year’s, but he’s become more efficient with his increased minutes, and his per-game totals quantify him as one of the league’s rising stars. Yet Stotts said that this may not have happened a season or two ago if McCollum was afforded the same kind of opportunity and playing time, because the injuries he sustained earlier in his career helped make him a stronger player.
“He’s gotten stronger, he’s improved his ball-handling, he’s always been a scorer,” Stotts told SheridanHoops. “He worked extremely hard over two years. He watched Wes [Matthews] and Nic [Batum] and he watched what Damian went through and he learned a lot through that experience. This was his time. He was ready for it.”
Lillard has been ascending right with McCollum. He’s scored at least 30 points in eight out of his last nine games, including a 51-point outburst right after the All-Star break when Portland beat Golden State by thirty-two. And when one player gets hot, that opens up scoring opportunities for the other.
“They feed off of each other and when you have two players who can score the ball like that, they cause a lot of attention,” Blazers reserve guard Allan Crabbe told SheridanHoops. When one guy gets a lot of defensive attention, whether it’s a trap or a double-team, the other guy is going to get a good one-on-one opportunity.
As for Dame’s steady rise, Blazers teammate Meyers Leonard has been with the team for all four years of Lillard’s career and isn’t surprised by what he’s doing one bit.
“I’ve seen it with his work pregame, pre-practice, during practice, late night,” Leonard said. “He’s a humble guy and gets his work in, and that’s why I know that I’m not surprised by anything that he’s doing.”
Some may think that it’s premature to put Lillard and McCollum up there with the five best backcourts in the NBA, but this year’s numbers prove that the duo more than belongs in the conversation.
|Top Backcourts||Min||FG %||3 FG %||Pts||Ast||Reb||Stl||PER||WS||Usage|
While Golden State’s backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson is definitely the lead pair, Portland’s guards are right up there statistically with Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Their overall numbers aren’t dissimilar at all.
“We’re establishing ourselves around the league,” McCollum told SheridanHoops. “We’re just doing what we always knew we were capable of doing.”
McCollum said that he hasn’t really thought about where he and Lillard stack up, but the confidence he has on the floor is rising as the season is progressing.
“We’re getting better chemistry, we’re starting to understand each other better and I think it’s showing in our play.”
Leonard says that Portland’s guard combo is right up there with the best of them.
“They’re certainly up there with anybody. They’re right up there with DeRozan and Lowry in my opinion,” Leonard told SheridanHoops. “They put the ball in the basket, they’re becoming better defenders.”
New York Knicks guard Arron Afflalo spent a little over two months as a Blazer last year after being acquired at the 2015 trade deadline from Denver and was able to have a close look at the growing offensive capabilities of the Portland backcourt. Does he think they’ve become an elite pairing?
“They are, by the numbers, for sure,” Afflalo told SheridanHoops. “That team relies on them heavily to get the job done. If those guys don’t play at a high level, they’d probably struggle to win.”
Another reason for Portland’s success has been an improved defense, which has been in the top 10 for the last six-to-eight weeks after a dismal start. The turning point, Lillard said, was a film session Stotts led in January that left him feeling embarrassed.
“He showed us what it looked like on film when we were doing it— when we were physical, when we did have active hands— and it led to transition points and it led to us moving the ball better and just having more energy,” Lillard said. “And then he showed us when we weren’t doing it, and we lost a lot of those games. A lot of those possessions, we got scored on. And it looked completely different.”
Despite the team’s success over the last 20-plus games, Portland is still just four games ahead of ninth-seeded Utah for a playoff spot. The margin of error for these young Blazers is still rail-thin.
“We need to be better in March and April than we were in October and November,” Stotts said, which has been the mantra he’s given to this team since the start of the season. “I think that’s been our approach and it’s been working really well.”
“We can’t slip up because we don’t have that luxury,” Lillard said. “It definitely helps that everybody has that mindset.”
With Lillard leading the charge and an improving backcourt that’s already one of the NBA’s elite groups, Portland is proving that it can be a lot more than a young, upstart team that’s arrived in the West playoff picture well ahead of schedule.
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. Follow him on Twitter.