PORTLAND — Damian Lillard made sure from the jump this season wouldn’t be just about him.
The Blazers point guard memorably proclaimed that he wasn’t “going to be the hero” this season.
What unfolded next was too good to be predicted, but if we’re all being honest, it was not until the Blazers were without Lillard that they learned what they could be.
CJ McCollum averaged 26 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds per game and in the words of Ed Davis “took over,” helping the Blazers go 4-2 when he played as Lillard recovered.
“Guys had to be more assertive, more efficient and sometimes create on their own,” McCollum said. “I could create some for them but there’s times that you just had to go out and get their bucket on their own and kind of dig down.”
Listening to what Lillard said in anticipation for a playoff series that will test the Blazers’ tempers and fortitude, both mental and physical, their challenge in the playoffs is not unlike the one they faced without Lillard.
“We just got to be mentally prepared,” Lillard said Wednesday. “A lot of our sets, they’ll know them, they’ll be locked in to that. We’ll have to make basketball plays. We’ll have to trust each other. ”
The Blazers’ season looked like it was on the verge of a backslide from which they wouldn’t recover.
On Dec. 21 in Atlanta, Lillard missed his first career game and McCollum also sat with injury, a predictable loss.
Things didn’t get much better when McCollum came back and the Blazers suffered a 26-point road loss to the hapless Pelicans to fall to 11-20.
Instead of wallow, they felt relief.
“We were home, some of us got to go back home,” Allen Crabbe said of getting to home to L.A. for Christmas, when he didn’t even stay awake to watch the end of Cavs-Warriors. “It was just a good refresher for us. It was one of many road trips that we had that was brutal.”
It was the night after Christmas and throughout the Moda Center few Blazers supporters were stirring, walking into a sure blowout without Lillard against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
The Blazers inexplicably crushed the defending East champs by 29, sparked by an early barrage of 3-pointers from McCollum, Crabbe and Al-Farouq Aminu.
“We just played freely,” Crabbe said. “It was one of those games that everybody was clicking.”
Crabbe led the Blazers with 26 points but even then, Lillard felt something wasn’t totally right McCollum.
“I was seeing CJ playing like he was playing with me on the court,” Lillard said. “I told him to get the ball up in transition to other guys. It will make the game easier on him because he’s such a good scorer, he’ll do that then run off 12 points in a row.”
The next night, McCollum had his best game as a pro with 35 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists on 50 percent shooting, the only such game in the NBA this season, in a come-from-behind road win over the Sacramento Kings.
He followed it up with performances of 29 points and four assists, 32 points and six assists and 25 points and seven assists.
“I just tried to mix it up,” McCollum said. “I didn’t try to be overly aggressive. I wanted to keep everybody involved and create plays for others. Share the ball, move the ball around and then when it’s times to be aggressive attack.”
During that stretch, Moe Harkless was a key figure and Gerald Henderson emerged as a veteran leader who would give the Blazers bench extra oomph down the stretch.
Lillard returned with new energy and the Blazers made the run that got them into the playoffs and the fifth seed, despite losing Meyers Leonard for the season in the final three weeks.
“It just showed how good we could be,” Harkless said of the time without Lillard. “When he went down, everybody had to step up their play and we did. That’s huge. Because any given night, Al-Farouq had 26, AC had 26 one night, Mason will have almost a triple-double one night. A lot of guys can step up. That’s important for a team.”
From the Cleveland game on, the Blazers were 33-18 (.647) with the 7th-highest winning percentage and 11th best net-rating in the league since.
“That was a really crucial part of the season for us,” coach Terry Stotts said. “I think that gave a lot of confidence to everybody, CJ included, when it comes to running the team and relying on each other. Winning those games I think gave everybody a lot of confidence.”
That part of Portland’s storybook season, the “Lillard’s Eleven” cast of characters making all the right moves in addition to McCollum’s co-starring role, is a storyline that must continue to be true if they are to pull off the upset.