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Damian Lillard Isn't Ready to Shut it Down Yet, But it's Coming Soon
The Trail Blazers are inching closer to accepting the reality of their season.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Mathematically, the Trail Blazers' season isn't over yet. Spiritually, everyone knows it is. Even Damian Lillard, the eternal optimist.
"I think everybody in here is not crazy," Lillard said after the Blazers' 117-102 loss to the Clippers on Sunday night. "You look at what other teams are doing, they're creating separation, and we're on a losing streak. We've pretty much fallen out of the race for the 10th spot unless we win every game, if you really look at it truthfully."
The loss was Portland's sixth in a row, dropping them to 31-40 on the season. They're three-and-a-half games out of the 10th seed in the Western Conference play-in with 11 to play, mostly against playoff teams. Best-case scenario, an unlikely winning streak will put them back into contention to be in a position where they have to win two games to even get the eighth seed and a matchup with a contending Denver team, which would be sure to be over quickly.
The standings-watching that's defined the second half of the season—the constant urge for both fans and those in the organization to talk themselves into "Hey, we might be 12th in the west, but we're only a game and a half out of seventh"—is starting to go the other way. Portland is closer in the standings to Orlando's fifth-best lottery odds (a 10.5 percent chance at Victor Wembanyama) than they are to the 10th play-in spot.
They're still not tanking, in the sense that they aren't starting Keljin Blevins, Elijah Hughes and C.J. Elleby for multiple weeks at a time like they were a year ago, but it's going to be a long final three weeks of the season. The only team definitively worse than they are left on the schedule is San Antonio in early April. Since the All-Star break, there hasn't been much reason to believe they can win a matchup against any of the better teams.
And eventually, Lillard will probably throw in the towel, even if he's not quite there yet.
Thus far, the organization has been resistant to the idea.
"As of right now, Dame is playing," head coach Chauncey Billups said before the game. "He's locked in. As you can see, he hasn't slowed down at all. Dame is one of those guys who, there's so much you have to do for him to not play. He takes it personal. He knows there's a lot of people that pay to watch him play. He takes it as a personal responsibility. He doesn't care what's going on. He wants to play. As of right now, that's where we're at."
Throughout his career, and especially after missing most of last season, Lillard has been adamant that he wants to play every game possible, regardless of where his team is in the standings. Earlier in the season, when he was dealing with a calf issue, the medical staff had to instruct the team's equipment manager not to put his jersey in his locker and give him the idea that he could try to give it a go. That's the way he's wired, and it's been hard for him to accept that it's the wisest course of action, even if deep down, he knows it.
"I'm just not ready to not play," he said. "Last season, I missed 52 games or something like that. I love to play, I love the competition, I'm just not ready to give that up. But it does come a point in time where you look around and wonder when you stop putting your competitive nature up front and start thinking about what a game of chess might look like. You've got to make your decision based on that. So we'll see."
Depending on if you believe in such concepts as karma and the wrath of the basketball gods, the Blazers might be buying themselves some goodwill by delaying the inevitable. Last year, they executed one of the most blatant tank jobs in NBA history, going 2-19 down the stretch and shutting down every serviceable NBA player on their roster, and ultimately moved from the sixth position in the lottery to the No. 7 overall pick.
If they were serious about tanking, they would have shut Lillard down two weeks ago. They wouldn't have let Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic come back from the injuries that kept them out most of February. They would have executed last year's playbook, and been justified in doing so.
But they owed it to Lillard, having one of the best seasons of a Hall of Fame career, to go for it as long as possible and give it an honest effort. Maybe they'll be rewarded with some lottery luck in May. When they won the Greg Oden-Kevin Durant lottery in 2007, they had a 5.3 percent chance of drawing the No. 1 pick. Depending on how the next three weeks shake out, they could have twice as many ping-pong balls in the drawing for what could be an even more life-changing prospect in Wembanyama. And that would be Lillard's ultimate reward for sticking it out for this long, through this much in 11 years with this organization.
In the moment, though, Lillard isn't really interested in those conversations. His answer to a postgame question about encouraging play from youngsters Shaedon Sharpe, Trendon Watford and Matisse Thybulle was telling.
"Anytime you see growth and you see stuff that can contribute to winning behavior and attitudes, you love to see that from guys," he said. "And I think that's something you've got to continue to encourage and continue to build upon as we continue to work towards next season and things like that. But for me, that's not what I'm interested in. That's the frustrating part of it. Talking about what's going to happen next season and us building, it's not what I'm here to do, especially at this stage in my career. As much as it's encouraging to promote that brand of basketball that you'll probably win with going forward, and that's what we've got to learn to make a habit of, right now I'm not out there like, 'This is what we've got to start doing for next year.' It's hard for me to remove myself from the present and get excited about what we can do going forward."
Soon, Lillard and everyone else will have no choice but to look to the future.