DBB: Damian Lillard has averaged over 30 points a game since February on ridiculous shooting percentages. Has anything changed with the offense in terms of getting him looks or has he just decided to be more aggressive?
Blazer's Edge: It's a few things: the team gelling and the All-Star snub come to mind first. As the Blazers have worked better together, it's forced opposing defenses to respect other players besides Dame, making his job on offense easier. Remember that this is a starting lineup where no two players, let alone the whole lineup, has started together for more than a few months. Part of it is that Damian Lillard thrives on doubt, perceived or real, and the All-Star snub clearly motivated him. Finally, and this is obvious: Damian Lillard is a monster. He's just hitting his prime, he's learning crafty veteran moves, and it's his first year as the leader of the team. The scary part: he will probably get better.
DBB: Many around the league feel that Terry Stotts is a Coach of the Year candidate. Do you like his chances of winning and how has he been able to maximise the success of this roster after so much turnover?
BE: It probably would have gone to Golden State's Steve Kerr, and he would have deserved it for (likely) carrying his team to NBA-record success, but he missed those first few dozen games early on. If the Blazers make the playoffs, particularly as a 6 seed or better, you have to think it goes to Stotts. This Blazers team lost its core, its identity, and the weapons that made the Stotts-ian offense click. Bring in an almost entirely new group of players, and nearly every single Blazer is having a career year. More than that, the team is exceeding expectations, handily. What hasn't changed is the team-first, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" Terry Stotts mentality: he respects his players, he gives them freedom, and in return they agree to work as a unit rather than a collection of individuals. And the buy-in comes from the top down, from stars Dame and CJ McCollum, to rest of the starters, to the role players, and even to those like Moe Harkless who rotted on the bench before hitting double digits in a half dozen games in a row. If you can motivate even the players who aren't playing, you're doing something right.
DBB: Also in the awards mentions, C.J. McCollum as potentially a Most Improved contender. Do you think the departure of stars has led to him being given a more prominent role, and would such a breakout have happened had the team retained guys like Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge?
BE: Very likely CJ McCollum would have been the "super sub" off the bench had the Blazers' core stayed together. Would he be averaging 20 points per game? No. Those 35 minutes he's enjoying would have been a lot closer to 25. He still would have grown and developed, but what we're seeing now is the emergence of a star in his own right. That wouldn't have happened if he were backing up Wes Matthews.
DBB: The Blazers were up big in the fourth in our previous matchup before Reggie Jackson decided to score 26 in the fourth quarter in a blowout come-from-behind victory for Detroit. Do you sense a revenge game, and will Lillard be able to win the PG matchup purely on the offensive end as he has been doing of late? Or do you think Jackson will give him enough trouble defensively to maybe put a stutter in his rhythm?
BE: First, credit where credit is due: Reggie Jackson absolutely lit up the Blazers in November. He's a great player. As to whether Dame takes that as a challenge, it's tough, because no doubt Dame has been reminded (while watching tape and from his own memory) how Jackson went off. At the same time, Dame most relishes matchups with the league's elite guards, and Jackson is not Chris Paul or Steph Curry... to be fair, few are. It's also true that much of Jackson's damage came while being guarded by CJ McCollum later in the 4th, though one can speculate why the Blazers switched that assignment. If I had to guess, yes, Lillard will remember that game and will put in an extra effort.
DBB: Portland is 7th in the West with a 33-30 record after many thought they'd be among the conference dwellers. Despite losing their last 2 games, are you still confident of their chances of a playoff berth, given Houston's inconsistent season and the recent struggles of the Jazz?
BE: Very confident. The Boston loss was the 4th game in 5 nights on the road against a good team. The Toronto loss was the 5th game in 7 nights on the road against a very good team, and the Blazers almost won anyway. The Rockets are a hot mess with a headcase superstar, the Jazz don't have a ton of fire power, and Sacramento is Crazy with a capital "c." The Blazers control their own destiny, and every single person on that bench, from Coach Stotts to the assistants to the players to the trainers, wants a playoff berth. The schedule is tough and a LOT can happen between now and playoff time, but if the chips are down, I'm betting that they make it.
DBB: Finally, a score prediction for the game?
BE: 96-89 Blazers in a game where both teams hold double-digit leads at some point. Detroit is a good team with a cohesive vision and continuity from top to bottom.... much like a team I know pretty well.