Following Damian Lillard’s lead, Portland has risen to top of crowded Western playoff race

Damian Lillard

(Photo: Ed Szczepanski, USA TODAY Sports)

You might not want to look now, maybe because it’s March and you’d rather be watching college hoops–but the Portland Trail Blazers are doing things no one thought possible for them this season.

Portland, amazingly, currently holds the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, and they’re balling like they’re trying to back up a brag on a Dame Dolla track.

At 39-26, and winners of eight straight, the Blazers have suddenly risen to the top of a crowded pack of teams fighting for playoff positioning. Seeds 3-9 are separated by just 3.5 games, but the fact that the Blazers, and not the Spurs, T-Wolves or Thunder, are currently the cream of that crop is remarkable.

Portland has come to expect greatness from Damian Lillard, but his consistent near-MVP-level output has been more than admirable. Perhaps no star in the league is as important to his team’s fortunes as Lillard, and he brings it every night, carrying this somewhat-undermanned squad like Chris Paul carried him in those State Farm commercials.

At age 27, Lillard has put together arguably the best season of his career (26.6 ppg, 6.5 apg, 4.5 rpg), and is shooting the rock better than ever– with his field goal (44.6%) and free throw percentages (90.8%) at all-time highs.

He’s also extended his range–shooting from Steph Curry depths and knocking them down with consistency. He’s done it all quietly, without any real fanfare or extended ESPN segments about his MVP candidacy. He’s become as consistently, quietly excellent as the Spurs, and it almost borders on boring until he pulls something like this:

Since Dame is almost as good a rapper as he is a basketball player (is he the best rapper in the league or is Lou Williams?), you could say that CJ McCollum (21.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.2 apg) is like the Puffy to his Biggie (stay with me here), and Jusuf Nurkic (14.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg) has emerged as, I don’t know…Mase?

Shabazz Napier has put down a few fire tracks of his own–turning into a playmaking dynamo off the bench, perhaps following in Lillard’s footsteps as an undersized guard who doesn’t let his vertical shortcomings phase him. (Can’t see Shabazz spitting bars, though).

Portland has become a perennial playoff outfit, despite losing LaMarcus Aldridge, and despite a bench bereft of depth.

Can the Blazers hang with Golden State or Houston? No. But, that’s not the point.

The fact that this incomplete team can not only compete but rise above a muddled field of contenders out West says something about Lillard’s greatness, or just how successful his prime has become.

As long as they’ve got Lillard, the Blazers are going to be a factor.

And that’s all Portland fans can ask for.

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