One of the Trail Blazers’ main talking points during training camp and preseason play has been the need to get off to a better start once the regular season begins. While getting off to poor starts hasn’t kept Portland from making the postseason the last two years, the assumption is that the late-season surges they’ve managed to run off the last two seasons will much more difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate in 2017-18. Between the ever-improving competition in the Western Conference and the road-heavy finish to their regular season schedule, it’s not hard to understand why nobody is counting on a late-season playoff push this time around.
Which helps explain why Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard seems to be taking Portland’s 2017 preseason schedule so seriously. Three games into Portland’s exhibition season, the 6-3 guard in his fifth season out of Weber State is averaging 23.0 points on 48 percent shooting in just over 23 minutes per game, with the most recent effort being a 35-point, three-rebound, two-steal performance in a 134-106 drubbing of the Clippers at Staples Center Sunday afternoon.
While offensive domination, especially against lesser opponents, isn’t exactly unusual for Lillard, it seems there’s more purpose in his current effort.
“The urgency is different,” said Lillard after Sunday’s victory in Los Angeles. “We can’t come in and say ‘Oh, it’s just the preseason.’ That can’t be our mentality. We’ve got to come out and treat it like it’s a real game with how focused we are to whatever scouting report they give us, how much we care about it. The mentality is important as far as just getting off to the same start. If we had that mentality now, when the season starts it’s not going to be like ‘Now it’s real.’ It’s always been real. That’s the mentality that we’ve got to have.”
For some teams, preseason play is little more than an opportunity to get in a light sweat, but the Trail Blazers are not one of those teams, at least not at this point in their maturation. After vastly exceeding expectations two seasons ago, they learned the hard way last season that they’re not at the point where they can just pencil themselves in for a postseason berth.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a practice or a preseason game, our mentality has to be like this (holds hand above his head) so regardless of what the situation is, it’s always there,” said Lillard. “We don’t got to try to take it up a level or any of those things. We’re not good enough to do that.”
Perhaps at some point, Trail Blazers will be one of those teams that can apply effort strategically and still come away victorious. But in the interim, they’ll have to scrap and hustle on a nightly basis if they’re to join the elite teams in the West, and as far as Lillard is concerned, they might as well steel themselves for that struggle during preseason play.
“We want to get off to better starts in games and a better start to the regular season, so our mentality has to be that this is a game,” said Lillard. “It don’t matter if it’s preseason, it don’t matter if it doesn’t go on our record or anything, we’ve got to stay ready. Our mentality has to be, we’re going to handle our business and that’s it, so when the season comes it’s not like we have to tell ourselves ‘Alright, this one count’ or “This for real’ because it’s just what we do. We come out, we stay locked in. If they get off to a good start, we stay the course. We keep trusting each other, we communicate and we play the game and we play the game serious. That’s what we need to have our focus on.”