The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t had the type of season they would have hoped for after making the Western Conference Finals last year. Instead of building on the momentum of making the NBA’s final four for the first time in 19 years, the Blazers have fallen back into lottery contention, three games outside of the eight seed in the West.
Their downfall has had nothing to do with the play of Damian Lillard, however, who remains as spectacular as ever in his eighth season in the league. And if Portland manages to make a run to capture a postseason spot, Lillard is certain that he would be able to damage in the playoffs.
Two weeks ago, the Blazers played the Rockets on ESPN, and Portland secured the upset in Houston. There were a number of off-the-court storylines entering the game, among them Carmelo Anthony’s first matchup against the Rockets since the team unceremoniously dumped him last year. Another source of the drama was the budding rivalry between Lillard and Russell Westbrook.
Lillard’s Blazers wiped the floor with Westbrook and OKC in the playoffs last year, sending the Thunder into a radical offseason makeover that ended with their franchise icon Westbrook in Houston. According to Jason Quick of The Athletic, there remains no love lost between the two All-Star point guards, and the tension started to rise during that nationally-televised contest.
Lillard and Westbrook exchanged some words about the latter’s free-throw percentage and the former’s current seed in the standings before Lillard delivered a final blow, saying, “You know I’m the last person you want to see in the playoffs.”
Recent history would certainly give Lillard the right to taunt Westbrook, given that he averaged 10 more points than the then-Thunder guard while shooting 10 percentage points better from the field in the five-game series win last year. Lillard has also been on fire of late, averaging 45 points per game since the two teams met earlier in January. It certainly adds a little extra fuel to the Blazers-Rockets matchup tonight as Portland continues to try to claw its way back into the playoff picture.
Lillard has been part of teams that have had to make late-season pushes to make the playoffs, and it would be foolhardy to count him out even with the hole the Blazers have dug for themselves. But if Portland does sneak into the postseason, the way Lillard sees it, Westbrook should be happy that they aren’t on track to meet up.