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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Portland must stay in NBA playoff chase despite absence of All-Star guard

PMG FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard expects to miss at least the next three games with a groin injury.The post-Damian Lillard era for the Trail Blazers begins Friday night at Moda Center against Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans. All of Portland hopes it's for the short term.

Lillard said Thursday he'll be out of action for "at least three or four games, maybe five" as he recovers from the groin injury suffered last Wednesday in a 111-104 loss at Memphis, the final game before the NBA All-Star break.

Eight days later, Portland's All-Star point guard wasn't close to being game-ready.

"I've been rehabbing and it's feeling better, but we have to be careful with this," Lillard said. "You can't just say, 'All right, I'm going to play through it,' or it could be bad. You have to take the time to rehab.

"I've been doing all the training I can do. I can move around. I'm shooting and doing some things ... but when I try to move around 100 percent, I just feel I can't do it. ... I'm sore as hell ... I have to take time off to let it heal completely. Once that happens, I'll be back out there."

The Blazers, 25-31 and in ninth place in the Western Conference, are on a three-game homestand, with dates with Detroit at 6 p.m. Sunday and Boston at 7 p.m. Tuesday following the 7:30 p.m. Pelicans fray. Portland then embarks on a three-game road trip, with stops at Indiana, Atlanta and Orlando. With Lillard, it's not hard to see the Blazers going 4-2 or even 5-1 over that stretch. Without him is a different story.

Lillard's absence means his backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, will take over some of his duties.

"Everybody has to do a little bit more," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "CJ will be counted upon to be a primary playmaker and to run the offense when he's out there. Anfernee (Simons) will have more ballhandling duties. That's the obvious stuff."

McCollum expects to play some point guard — maybe a lot of point guard — over the next few games.

"I have to make sure I'm putting guys in the right position to succeed," he said. "'Dame' does a lot for us offensively, calling plays, facilitating and scoring. I'll have to do a little bit more of that. At the same time, one person can't replace his production. We have to all be better."

Who takes Lillard's place in the starting lineup? It could be Simons, Lillard's backup at the point. But who plays the position when McCollum and Simons are both out of the game?

The likely candidate to start alongside McCollum is Gary Trent Jr., who was on a roll coming off the bench over an 11-game span before scoring a combined eight points on 3-for-13 shooting in Portland's two road losses last week. The 6-6 Trent is a natural shooting guard who can pair with McCollum, and he's a better defender than Simons.

All three are sure to get heavy minutes while Lillard is out, and Trevor Ariza and/or Nassir Little may be called on for emergency minutes at shooting guard. Mario Hezonja (back) will not be in action Friday.

"I expect everybody to lift up their level of play in my absence because of what we need to happen," Lillard said. "We don't really have a choice. I wouldn't expect anything less."

Portland is four games back of No. 8 Memphis (28-26) with 26 yet to play, 15 of them at home. Behind the Blazers are San Antonio (23-31 and one game back) and New Orleans (23-32 and 1 1/2 games behind), the latter in position to make a charge with the addition of rookie Williamson.

The Grizzlies are 8-2 in their last 10 games, the Blazers and Pelicans each 6-4. An educated guess is that it will take at least 42 wins to gain the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. To get there, Portland would have to finish 17-9. And it may take more than that.

"We need (to win) 16 to 20 of them," Lillard said. "This is it. It's all or nothing. Earlier in the year, we were like, 'We have 50 games left.' Now it's 26. ... It's going to take focus and urgency. We gotta be together. We gotta want it more than other teams. If we don't, we'll be on the outside looking in."

The Blazers will have to do it, at least in the short run, without Jusuf Nurkic. The 7-foot "Bosnian Beast" continues to rehab from March 2019 surgery on a broken leg, and club officials were hopeful to regain his services by the All-Star break.

Slowed by a strained calf muscle, Nurkic has yet to rejoin the team in practice sessions. As the days roll by, chances that he'll return and be a major factor grow more dim. There's a decent chance, in fact, that he won't be back until next season — unless Portland makes a run in the playoffs.

The Blazers are hopeful they can do just that down the stretch of the regular season. Fifteen of the remaining opponents carry losing records.

"Our schedule is favorable the rest of the way," Stotts noted.

On the other hand, the Blazers have a losing record, too, a trend that could grow with Lillard on the shelf. They've been a great finishing team the past four years, going 17-9 after the break in 2015-16, 18-8 in 2016-17, 17-7 in 2017-18 and 19-6 last season. That, of course, was with Lillard cracking the whip and willing his team to victory.

"Damian has been a big part of that, and historically, his numbers and CJ's numbers are better after the break," Stotts said. The coach also mentioned late-season additions, including Nurkic in 2018 and Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood a year ago. The late addition this season was Ariza, and the Blazers are going to need him to be at his best the rest of the way.

Lillard said he is feeling "anxious. I want these games to fly by so I can see where we're going to be and what needs to be done for us to get in the playoffs."

The Blazers' meal ticket has been one of the NBA's most durable stars, having missed only 27 games in his eight-year career. He also had to miss what would have been his fifth All-Star Game appearance last Sunday in Chicago — the most entertaining, competitive gala in many years. No clock was used in a fourth quarter that, with a target score of 24 points, took 51 minutes to complete.

"If there was one to miss, I don't think that was the one," Lillard lamented. "I wish I'd have played in it. If I'd have played that game would have been over 30 minutes earlier."

Even so, it was a big weekend for Lillard, who performed as "Dame D.O.L.L.A" in a Saturday night show at United Center — and also announced his engagement to his long-time girlfriend, Kay'La Hanson, the mother of their child, Damian Jr.

"We've been together a long time," Lillard said. "We have a son now. It's only right that we got to that point. I'm proud of that. That was the highlight of my weekend."

Do Lillard and Hanson have a wedding date?

"No, we don't," Damian said. Then, with a slight smile: "Slow it down ... slow it down, man. Please."

For now, Lillard will focus on getting off the injured list.

"It's disappointing," Stotts said. "He's having another all-pro year. Hopefully, he gets healthy quickly and is able to come back. Until he does, we have to figure other things out."

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@kerryeggers


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