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Young Blazers following Damian Lillard's lead to surprising heights

PORTLAND, Ore. -- There was a mild debate over historical precedent after the Portland Trail Blazers' 112-104 victory against the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night.

When point guard Damian Lillard had stepped to the line in the closing seconds to formalize the Blazers' 11th win in 12 games, the Portland crowd greeted him with the honorary "M-V-P" chant.

"That was the first time I ever heard it," Lillard said following the game.

Those gathered in front of Lillard's locker reviewed their mental notes. Hadn't there been softer renditions of "M-V-P"? What decibel threshold does "M-V-P" have to clear to constitute an official attempt?

Lillard then issued his verdict.

"That was the first time, really."

The timing of "M-V-P" was both apt and a bit ironic. Lillard has pieced together the best five-game stretch of his career. Starting with a win at Memphis on Feb. 8, he's averaging 35.8 points per game on a true-shooting percentage of 66.6 percent, along with six assists, including a 51-point outburst over Golden State on Feb. 19 that included seven dimes and six steals without a turnover.

The performance was improbable, not because the Warriors are the Warriors, but because even with the break, Lillard hadn't been feeling 100 percent. His legs and feet were achy, and at times he felt winded. After shootaround that morning, he sat in the cold tub for about 15 minutes to salve his lower body. He spent another 15 minutes in the steam room with teammate Al-Farouq Aminu before heading home. Though he rarely takes naps, he shut his eyes, and when he woke, he felt better and had a bite to eat.

Though it was still earlier than he would normally leave for the arena, he figured there was no sense in sticking around just to stick around, so he drove down to the Moda Center, getting there about 45 minutes earlier than his usual 4:30 p.m. arrival time. He sat in the locker room with Ed Davis, who was the only other player at the arena. He went into the training room and received some treatment on his foot, after which he watched some of the early games.

Four hours later, he walked off the floor with those 51 points and there was an electric current running through the building. Portland had witnessed one of the single best individual performances paired with one of the most impressive team wins of the NBA season.

"Every one of us has something to prove, so everyone is working hard. That's great for our culture, especially for a young team."

C.J. McCollum

The weekend prior to his epic outing, Lillard had found himself in Toronto over the All-Star break, but not as a participant. He was the odd man out in the stacked Western Conference guard ranks, but he was a cheerleader for teammate C.J. McCollum, who was competing in All-Star Saturday. After the drubbing of the Warriors, the suggestion was put to Lillard that perhaps his recent pyrotechnics could be chalked up to the All-Star snub, but he would have none of it.

"I'm done with the All-Star Game," he said.

Running mate McCollum -- no slouch himself since the All-Star Game (28.7 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 68.7 over three games) -- offered a cheekier response to the question.

"Had nothing to do with it," McCollum said with a verbal wink. "Nothing at all."

Creating a 'competitive environment'

Lillard regards the numbers as only one variable in the value equation. With the exodus of LaMarcus Aldridge and the nucleus of veterans from the previous two 50-plus-win teams, Lillard inherited the prime leadership role this season, both on the floor and in the locker room.

Leader is a title that's easy to designate, but hard to achieve. From the August training camp and team-building retreat he orchestrated in August for the newly constructed Trail Blazers to the positive leadership he extends to teammates and staff, Lillard has emerged as one of the league's natural captains in a market that many superstars with his stage presence might dismiss as "The Revenant" country.

Lillard's assassin-ambassador combo is one reason the Trail Blazers quickly got over Aldridge's departure. Veteran flight like the one the team experienced over the summer often leaves a cultural vacuum that takes years to fill. Not in Portland, where, counterintuitively, the youth movement actually improved the workplace vibe.

"Almost everyone on the roster is young, and that's created a competitive environment," McCollum said. "Every one of us has something to prove, so everyone is working hard. That's great for our culture, especially for a young team."

Gone are the egos, as well as certain precepts held by some that a playoff team should favor veterans over young'uns when there are minutes to dispense -- merit be damned. This is a happy team, yet also a professional outfit with a blend of Lillard's seriousness and puppy energy. In recent months, the training facility has become one-part workplace, one-part clubhouse, where guys hang out before and after practice.

On Monday afternoon following practice, McCollum sat by the court and scanned the floor. He landed on Meyers Leonard -- who had already finished his work but stayed to watch teammates Aminu, Maurice Harkless and Gerald Henderson put up shots -- with some requisite good-natured trash talk.

"Practice is over. That guy could be home, but he's staying here," McCollum said of Leonard.

The new young core that consists of the dynamic backcourt, along with Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Allen Crabbe, Noah Vonleh, Davis, Harkless, Leonard and Henderson (a relative oldster at 28), was pegged by Las Vegas to win 26.5 games this season. If you took the under, go ahead and tear up the bet slip, as the Trail Blazers now sit at 30-27, good for the sixth slot in the Western Conference.

As the odds indicate, Portland's success has surprised the league, especially given that if the Trail Blazers quality for the playoffs, they'll have to convey their first-round draft pick to Denver -- one reason many assumed they had limited incentive to win this season. While few in Portland anticipated the Trail Blazers wouldn't take some lumps, especially as a young team on the road, management insists there was never an explicit design to throw the season.

"The plan was never to tank. Damian and C.J. and three guys from ClubSport could win 20 games. There was never going to be any bottoming out; there was going to be development."

Blazers GM Neil Olshey

"The plan was never to tank," general manager Neil Olshey said. "Damian and C.J. and three guys from ClubSport could win 20 games. There was never going to be any bottoming out; there was going to be development. Our job was to make sure anyone who was on the floor had a long-term impact on this organization. That's what we've done. We've brought in quality, undervalued players we believed would complement them, and they have begun to thrive in our system and our culture."

With encouragement from Lillard, the Trail Blazers kept that rotation intact at the trade deadline. Taking advantage of their station as one of the few teams under the salary floor, they snagged one of the three first-round picks that exchanged hands at the deadline, sending in return a 2020 second-round pick they give up only if they have one of the league's five best records. With a couple of phone calls, the Trail Blazers were able to find a prime asset to insure against their success -- which is looking more probable these days.

Defense makes a big jump

Fraternal goodwill and smart accounting are all well and good, but basketball games are fundamentally won and lost with efficient possessions. Offensively, the Trail Blazers have been strong since the outset of the season. They currently rank seventh in points per possession, one spot higher than the 2014-15 squad.

And credit Portland for a big bump in aesthetics. It's not a faster offense, but it's more fluid with a roomier half court. Lillard and McCollum can each handle, create and spot up, and in Plumlee, Portland has found a big man who finds shooters and slashers with smart passes.

"Our offense is based on a lot of reads," Lillard said. "That gives us freedom, but it also means that we have to play with a lot of trust. Right now, we're trusting each other. One of my jobs is to keep that trust."

Portland runs a ton of actions out of their pick-and-rolls -- pindowns and a ton of flare screens, to name a couple. And to Lillard's point, the guys on the floor have the liberty to integrate those actions at their discretion because there's enough playmaking on the floor to make it work.

The defensive project in Portland has been more laborious -- and the hard work has paid off. Since a home loss to Atlanta on Jan. 20, the Trail Blazers rank third in defensive efficiency. It required a strategic reversal, as well as some plain ol' seasoning that comes with logging court time together.

"After the Atlanta game, late January, is when we had a lot of practice time," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "We had two sets of two days off in a row. We had good practice days."

When Stotts took a look at his roster late last summer, he saw a platoon of uber-athletic bigs with exceptional mobility. With an allowance to experiment and measured expectations for the season, the staff drew up pick-and-roll defensive schemes that extended pressure all over the floor. This was a 180 from the preferred coverage when Aldridge and Robin Lopez were manning the frontcourt. Rather than dropping into the paint, the young big men would stay up on pick-and-rolls.

Such a scheme requires agility, a strong suit of the young Portland big men. But it's complicated stuff, which is why young teams tend to struggle defensively and relatively unathletic teams like San Antonio can lead the world in defensive efficiency on the strength of their collective experience.

"We weren't defending the pick-and-roll well," big man Davis said. "We would be up too much and the guards would attack, or the bigs would get duck-ins or lobs or things like that. So for two weeks straight in practice, we focused on it heavy. That was all they were preaching: defending the screen-and-roll. We still do it to this day -- at shootaround and the day before the game. That's what the NBA is nowadays, you know? The last five minutes, 80 percent of the plays are some type of midscreen-and-roll."

Portland now splits the difference. There's selective pressure based on matchup (for example, Friday's game against Golden State), but most possessions see RoLo Redux, with the big man dropping off the screen and engaging the ball handler.

"We can take some more gambles -- stunting and getting back and things like that," Davis said. "It's a thin line. You can't be back too far, and you can't be too far up. I tell the coaches all the time: It comes so fast in the game. It's easy to be, like, 'Get back.' But when it's coming at you, it's different. But we've learned to anticipate, to know where that line is, to lock in on defense."

Per Davis, it does come fast, but the Trail Blazers are keeping pace. For a young team, its players are expert in problem-solving. Some of that is sensible coaching and some of it is a well-constructed roster of undervalued young talent and smart draft picks.

But it's the intangibles that Lillard carries with him that represent the greatest asset of the franchise. He has grown into one of those select few guys in the league whose sheer presence on the roster guarantees overachievement.