Lillard and McCollum aim Portland at the playoffs
ANNE M. PETERSON
Mar. 29, 2016
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Portland's backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are partners on the court and friends off of it.
Their almost symbiotic relationship has helped carry the surprising young Trail Blazers into postseason contention after an offseason roster overhaul that saw the departure of all but one starter — Lillard — from last season's playoff team.
"Those two guards play the right way and make the game fun for everybody," Sacramento coach George Karl said.
Lillard and McCollum have combined to average 46.1 points this season, for just over 44 percent of Portland's total average, while leading the Blazers to a 39-36 record. The sharp-shooting pair rank only below Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, in total combined points.
While those twosomes, along with Toronto's Kyle Lowry and DeMarcus DeRozan, seem to grab the most attention, Lillard and McCollum are unassumingly earning the league's respect.
"When these guys are on the floor they demand your attention," Atlanta forward Kent Bazemore said following a visit to Portland earlier this season. "You see them on paper or watch film, but when you are out there on the floor it is totally different. They do a great job working together."
Lillard is averaging a career-best 25.4 points per game while McCollum, in his first season as a starter, is averaging 20.7, also a career high. And like the Splash Brothers, both are proficient from 3-point range; Lillard ranks third in the league for made 3s with 212, while McCollum ranks ninth with 177.
Lillard and McCollum have three games this season when both have scored 30 or more points, most recently in a 117-112 win over New Orleans on March 18. Lillard had 33 points and McCollum had 30.
"They are such dynamic shooters off the dribble and if they get in the paint they can make plays for others," said Utah's Gordon Hayward. "They're definitely good at what they do."
But more than just their scoring prowess, often one picks up for the other in the face of injuries or off nights. When Lillard missed seven games with left foot plantar fasciitis, McCollum started at point and scored 25 or more points four times.
"I think there's just a very high level of trust and openness between us," Lillard said. "When he gets it going I have no problem continuing to find him and letting him handle the ball. And the same thing with me. We just have that type of chemistry, that type of respect."
"I think we have a really good relationship; we understand each other and we play well off each other — two dynamic guards who can do a lot of different things," he said. "And then off the court we get along really well."
Portland reached the playoffs last season but soon thereafter starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez all left. Blazers coach Terry Stotts was tasked with pulling together a new starting lineup to surround Lillard.
Detractors suggested the team — the third-youngest in the league — was unlikely to reach 30 wins.
But while Stotts considered his starters, Lillard and McCollum took charge of the team bonding, putting together a preseason trip to San Diego.
McCollum credited the getaway with setting the stage for the unexpected season. The doubters have been motivation, too.
"People didn't expect a lot of us," he said. "That was extra motivation for us to compete, and go out there and show that we belong."
Lillard and McCollum anchor a starting lineup that includes center Mason Plumlee and forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless. Portland took a hit recently when reserve center Meyers Leonard injured his shoulder. He's out for the season.
The Blazers are all but assured of a playoff spot, sitting in sixth place in the tough Western Conference with seven games left, starting with a visit from the Boston Celtics on Thursday.
McCollum suggested this season, no matter how is ends up, is just the beginning for Portland's dynamic duo.
"I think it's rare you find people who genuinely want to see each other succeed. There's no jealousy or envy. We just want to win and want what's best for each other," McCollum said. "And I think we'll be able to play together for a long time."