Damian Lillard is Back, and the Trail Blazers are Back on Track
Lillard's return to the lineup is a welcome sight as the Blazers took care of business against the Pacers.
PORTLAND, Ore. — It took until the league's lineup-submission deadline for the Trail Blazers to make Damian Lillard's return official, but it didn't take long for him to announce he was back.
On his first shot of the night, a minute into the Blazers' 116-100 win over the Indiana Pacers, he elevated over some tight defense from Andrew Nembhard to knock down a corner three. He missed a deep pull-up three attempt on the following possession. Two in a row would have set the Moda Center on fire. But by and large, Lillard looked like himself on Sunday, and they needed that shot in the arm in the worst way.
"He completely changes how we play," Jerami Grant said after the game. "The ball is moving around a lot. It makes the game easier when he's with us."
Lillard's return came at the perfect time in the Blazers' schedule. Before Saturday, they had lost seven of eight, including six without him and dropped from 10-4 to 11-11. Last night, they grinded out a win over the Jazz on the road to stop the bleeding. Sunday, with Lillard back in the lineup, things looked like they're getting back on track.
Lillard was terrific in his return after re-aggravating his right calf on Nov. 19. But he wasn't Portland's leading scorer. He wasn't their second-leading scorer, either. Jerami Grant had 28 points and Anfernee Simons had 22. Lillard finished with 21 on 7-of-16 shooting, knocking down five 3-pointers and adding four rebounds and six assists.
Physically, he looked unbothered by the calf issue, and he confirmed after the game that he didn't feel limited. It would seem to validate what we've thought and written: he wanted to play a week ago, but the medical staff is being extra-cautious. With three days off before Thursday's game against Denver, everyone is comfortable with where Lillard is.
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It helps that he's not coming back into a situation where the Blazers' only hope of winning is if he goes for 40. With Grant and Simons, he has more weapons around him than he's had since at least the LaMarcus Aldridge-Wesley Matthews-Nicolas Batum years. He's playing off the ball now more than he ever has, letting Grant and Simons get theirs. It's how he's managing not only his health for the long haul but the comfort level of his teammates.
And at this point in his career, that's how he likes it.
"I watch a lot of film," Lillard said. "Even when I haven't been playing, I watch the games. When I'm on the bench, I pay attention to the game. When I'm in the huddle, I'm seeing what Chauncey is saying. I know how to be present. I know how to have an impact on the game and be myself in whatever is going on. This is the first time we've had it this way. We've all had 40 points this way. It shows the ability that we have.
"For me, it's a luxury. It's my job to embrace that and allow Ant to be aggressive and find spots, allow Jerami to be aggressive and find spots. And then me as the experienced person, I've done it over and over and over, it makes no sense for me to over-exert myself and do more than I have to. If we're really gonna win, it has to be collective. It's really encouraging for me to see it unfold, that we've really got pieces and we've got the ability to play that way."
It's been several weeks since the Blazers had "League's Biggest Surprise" status. The combination of injuries, long road trips and defensive regression have put them right back in the tangle of Western Conference playoff hopefuls. Two days ago, they were outside the top 10. Today, they're back in the top eight. A few more wins this week at home and they might be back in the top four. But their feeling is that the worst of this forgettable stretch is behind them.
"I think this is what we need," Lillard said. "If we're going to accomplish what we want to accomplish, you have to get tried. And I think we're getting tested from every angle. We've had injuries, we've had a tough schedule, just unfortunate situations. The fact that we get through these first 24 games and we're 13-11, two games above .500 and trending in the right direction, I think we've got to be pleased with where we are."
What We Saw
For paid subscribers, notes, thoughts and observations from the game, plus the Jersey of the Night: