Lillard in the Limelight

Blazer star set for debut on national playoff stage

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

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Damian Lillard had formed a new post-game routine in the week before the Portland Trail Blazers clinched their playoff birth.

The All-Star in his second season would come home, turn on the TV and watch how the standings shook out after the night's games.

"At first I was watching NBA Gametime and seeing who won, who lost for about a week," Lillard said. "And I was like 'all right that was good, that was bad.' "

But on the night of April 6, after Portland defeated New Orleans to secure a playoff berth, the realization finally hit him.

"When I got home I was sitting there looking at the TV like, 'this doesn't even matter anymore.' We won, we're in the playoffs," he said.

But that moment only lasted for a little while.

It's an easy argument that Lillard is the newcomer with the highest profile in the 2014 playoffs.

He just signed what is reportedly the third largest shoe deal in basketball with Adidas. He just made his first All-Star Game one year after unanimously winning Rookie of The Year.

He's also not kidding himself that he knows exactly how playoff basketball is. He's seen it on TV but his teammates, coaches and even opposing coaches feel as though Lillard won't take long to adapt.

"You don't have to tell an All-Star nothing," said Dorell Wright. "He's a competitor. He knows how important it is. Each and every day he comes in with the mindset of working each and every day to get better."

Said Blazers coach Terry Stotts: "After the first five minutes of the playoffs he will have playoff experience."

Sacramento head coach Mike Malone, who was an assistant for Golden State as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson powered the Warriors to a win in last year's playoffs, thinks Lillard won't be in awe of the stage.

In fact, he thinks he will relish it.

"Damian Lillard, I can't imagine him saying 'this is my first playoff,' " Malone said. "He is going to go out there and show everybody this is a time to step up and make a name for yourself. Regular season is fine, but players make a name for themselves in the playoffs."

There's nothing the Blazers or Lillard can do before tip off to get him more ready than he already is right now.

The Houston Rockets have two All-Stars, two players who have been to the NBA Finals, both on maximum contracts.

Portland has Aldridge — a three-time All-Star. They also have Lillard, who has played like a veteran since his first day in the league.

But still, the questions will remain until Lillard takes the court in the playoffs.

"At this point it's not about stats or what I can do individually," Lillard said. "It's about what I can bring to the table to help win games."

The spotlight will be brighter than ever and Lillard has never been shy of the glare.

The Blazers will need the best from almost anyone who takes a floor to take this series.

But the question everyone is waiting to answer is if Lillard's best can help Aldridge and the Blazers get past the first round or at least force a Game 7, neither of which the franchise has done in more than a decade.

They've quietly improved their defense since the All-Star break, defending at a top-10 level to close the season. Their transition defense will be key against Houston's fast-paced attack predicated on attacking the basket, running to the three-point line and getting to the free-throw line.

Their offense seems to have found their groove.

But it's Lillard and his play — no matter who is guarding him — that will carry the most intrigue.

Now that he's no longer scoreboard-watching and had his "we made it" moment, what's the feeling now?

"Really excited," he said.