Damian Lillard was out for two games due to injury. How did the Portland Trail Blazers manage without him?
Portland Trail Blazers lead guard Damian Lillard strained his right hamstring in the team’s 93-91 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. This injury forced Lillard to sit out Portland’s Friday-Saturday back-to-back against the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers, respectively.
Losing Lillard for any extended amount of time is rare. From his arrival in 2012 through 2017, he played in 427 of the Blazers’ 441 regular season games and all 31 playoff matchups. His first injury stint came in late December 2015. Lillard missed seven games due to plantar fasciitis in his left heel. He returned at the beginning of the following January. In 2016-17, at almost the same time, Lillard sat out five games due to a sprained left ankle. Once, again, he returned at the beginning of January.
However, Lillard’s third set of missed games wasn’t for anything dire. Head coach Terry Stotts chose to sit Lillard for the final two games of the 2016-17 season after the Trail Blazers had clinched a playoff berth. Lillard earned it, leading the team to a 16-5 record in the months of March and April. He scored 59 points in his final game of the year.
The Blazers went 7-7 in those games sans Lillard: 4-3 during the 2015-16 stint, 2-3 during the 2016-17 injury stint and 1-1 in the end-of-season games.
Portland managed to uphold the split in their recent back-to-back without Lillard. The Blazers were pummeled at home by the Nuggets 102-85 in the first game. However, Portland managed to bounce back the next night with a 95-92 victory over the Lakers in Los Angeles.
Stotts chose to start C.J. McCollum at point guard in their game against Denver. In turn, Evan Turner started at shooting guard while Jake Layman slid in at small forward. The game started off competitive, with the teams tied at 28 early in the second quarter.
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However, the Nuggets would spend the rest of the quarter pulling away with a lead they never relinquished. They went up by as many as 21 in the game before the final margin was settled.
McCollum paced the team with only 15 points and three assists. He shot 7-for-18 from the field and 1-for-5 from 3-point range. Jusuf Nurkic could only muster 10 points and one rebound. He went 4-for-10 from the field and committed four turnovers. The team struggled with their 3-pointers, going 6-for-22 from beyond the arc.
The Blazers simply couldn’t contain the Nuggets offense due to both hot shooting and a lack of continuity without one of their key cogs. Nikola Jokic led all scorers with 27 points and pitched in nine rebounds and six assists. Wilson Chandler and Gary Harris also had big nights. Chandler finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds, while Harris had 17 points and three steals.
Things worked out better for the Blazers against the Lakers. Things started out slow, with Portland only scoring 17 points in the first quarter. However, they managed to outscore the Lakers 78-68 in the latter three frames.
Shabazz Napier was brought in at starting point guard on this night. This moved McCollum back to 2-guard and Turner back to small forward. Much like I alluded to last week, Napier did not disappoint in the role that Stotts gave him.
Napier led the Blazers starters with 21 points and five assists. He shot 8-for-18 from the field, including 4-for-7 from distance. McCollum pitched in 17 points despite shooting 7-for-23 from the field. Nurkic struggled in LA with four points on 2-for-11 shooting and five rebounds in 17 minutes.
However, it was Maurice Harkless that led all scorers with 22 points from off of the bench. This was a pleasing development, as he was struggling with a quad contusion for the previous two weeks. The injury led him to miss six of the eight games prior to Saturday night. Harkless was responsible for the Blazers’ final four points, including the go-ahead lay-in with 21 second remaining in the game.
The Portland Trail Blazers scrapped as best as they could in their two games without Damian Lillard. In the end, they fell short against a talented division rival and fought out a win against a young Lakers team. It’s hard to imagine the Blazers doing well over an extended period of time without Lillard.
Luckily, the Blazers won’t have to worry about the problem for now. Christmas break gave Lillard ample time to rest his ailment. According to Blazers.com’s Casey Holdahl, he was able to go through a solo workout and a practice. Therefore, he will more than likely be ready for their Thursday night matchup at home against the Philadelphia 76ers. The game will be on TNT, so the spotlight will definitely be on how well the team plays upon Lillard’s return.