Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum talk Blazers' rise, best backcourts

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were enjoying bowls of clam chowder when things got intense. The topic had turned to how I didn't anticipate the Portland Trail Blazers being the third seed in the Western Conference this late in the season.

Upon hearing that, McCollum stopped mid-scoop and said, "What did you anticipate? While we're at it."

"Now that's a good question," Lillard said.

Yes, these two prideful individuals know how to attack on the court and at the dinner table.

I recently sat down with the dynamic guards, who were later joined by assistant coach David Vanterpool, at El Gaucho restaurant in downtown Portland to discuss a bevy of topics, including how their friendship started, why Lillard doesn't like being compared to Stephen Curry, how McCollum dealt with recent trade rumors, where they fit among the best backcourt duos in the game, and their growing rivalry with the Houston Rockets.

Here are excerpts, which have been edited for length, from the interview:

On the Blazers' exceeding expectations ...

Chris Haynes: No way did I ever expect you guys would be at this point right now. You hear about Golden State. You hear about Houston. You're hearing about Cleveland, Boston, Toronto. Hardly ever any mention of Portland. Does that motivate, frustrate?

Damian Lillard: I mean, I wouldn't say it motivates or frustrates us. I mean, that's just what it is. It ain't nothing that's new about that. And I think with those teams it was what they're doing was expected. So what we have accomplished so far, they're gonna look at it like it's a fluke. It seems like they would rather address it later like, "All right. We'll see about it."

CH: What is it going to take to convince them that this team is legit?

C.J. McCollum: I think the proof is in the pudding. You know, this is my fifth year in the league. And this is gonna be our fifth year making the playoffs. So that's one. Two is to continue to build on how we played the last five years. So getting more wins, getting 50 wins consistently, getting out of the first round, getting out of the second round.

I think once you consistently do those things, then your perception changes a lot. ... And you can argue all the things in the world. But you can't argue these wins and losses.

DL: What he said. [Laughs]

CH: You look at the roster from top to bottom, and there's a lotta names that probably the average fan wouldn't know about. How were you able to get to this point right now?

DL: Over the last three years we've developed a great level of chemistry. Guys have done a great job getting better each summer. You know, I think our assistants do a great job with our player development. So it's not like just going through meaningless workouts. You know, it's coming off flares and pindowns. There's a lotta stuff incorporated in workouts that is a part of our offense and a part of the way we play. So people can come in and impact a game, and get comfortable through their workouts. A lot of film.

And we got a lotta faith in each other. I think we show trust in each other. And we lean on each other. And, you know, in the past we hadn't done that as much as we have been lately.

And also, our commitment to the defensive end. I think we're a much better defensive team. So, it's allowed us to win a lot more games so far.

"I think we as good as any backcourt."
Damian Lillard

CH: How have you guys been able to sustain such a high level of defense?

CM: I think it's just understanding the schemes a little bit better. The coaches do a great job of preparing us each day. You know, working on the scouting reports, figuring out how to help. And, this is my third year of playing as a starter full-time minutes. So I think you better understand how to shortcut certain plays. You understand personnel a little bit better. And the more you play, the more you learn on the fly.

And I think it was an effort thing. It was a summer thing of working. Working on angles. Working on how to guard post-ups. And I think we've all gotten better collectively as a unit and more comfortable together.

And I always say the best defense is offense. You can attack somebody and wear 'em down, you know, offensively, then when you get on the defensive end, they're gonna be a little bit more tired.

On dealing with trade rumors ...

CH: So before you guys went on this run, there were talks about what moves the Trail Blazers needed to make to improve this roster. And what always came up was they gotta split you guys. C.J., your name came up a lot. How did you handle that?

CM: I just take it in stride, understand that that's how the business works. When things aren't going well, someone has to get blamed. And you're not gonna blame people starting from the bottom. You're gonna start at the top, and weed through it, and pick things apart, and try to figure out. "Why isn't this working? Why isn't that working?" And then when you analyze potential trades, who you gonna trade for? Who you gonna trade?

You're gonna trade valuable assets, or valuable assets are gonna be mentioned in possible trades because that's the way the world works nowadays. And I think as an NBA player you have to understand this business. And the organization has to do what's best for them. And you have to do what's best for yourself as a player. And your job as a player is to show up every day, be ready to play. Regardless of the noise that's going on around you, you need to be able to perform.

CH: Did you ever think there could have been anything concrete?

CM: I didn't get any calls from my agent. And I talked to Neil [Olshey] before the trade deadline. I told him, "Get home and get some rest." And he joked with me, said he was on the phone trying to figure out where he was gonna move me next. [Laughs] And when he said that joke, I was like, "All right. I'm safe right now."

Because he wouldn't be joking about this if he was serious. But nah, in all seriousness, I feel like what's meant to be will be, man. I try not to worry about nothing I can't control. I can't control rumors. I can't control who would be interested in me. I think you should look at it as a blessing that other people would think you're valuable enough to be mentioned in a trade. It could be worse. No one could want you.

CH: That's true.

CM: And if no one wants you, that's a problem.

On their friendship ...

CH: What started the process of you guys meshing?

DL: I think the best part about it is it was organic. We come from similar situations as far as going to a small school, having to carry the load for our college teams, being high draft picks. And, you know, we had the same injury in college.

And that was actually when we first got in touch with each other. Because I broke my foot in college. And he did the same thing. And then we got in contact 'cause I was kinda sharing how I dealt with it and what I did to kinda bounce back following that injury. And from that point on, we just kept in contact. And eventually we became teammates. And it made it easier because we didn't have to, you know, try to force anything.

And from Day 1 we sat next to each other on the plane. We were working out together and stuff like that. So I think that just made it a lot easier once it came to the point where, you know, we were the ones leading the team.

CH: What was it like for you, C.J., going through that process? 'Cause when you first came in the league, it didn't look like there was going to be a door open for you to be in the position you are now.

CM: Right. No, it's a humbling experience just going through injuries. You know, your dreams, aspirations are all on the line. And you don't know your future. ...

And then we win 54 games. Like, we go from lottery team to top four in the West. So as a young player, it's hard to kinda find your way when mistakes are amplified. You're on a bad team, you can make mistakes and nothing happens. You're on a good team in the Western Conference, every game is that much more important. And your coach has less tolerance for error. So I come in, I don't remember a play, or I mess up a defensive assignment. ...

DL: Coming out.

CM: Yeah, I'm coming out. [Laughs] ... So having to go through that and then the DNPs. And then the next year I fractured my index finger in my shooting hand. Then we traded for Arron Afflalo.

It was just like everything kept happening over and over again. I was like, "Eventually I'm gonna get a chance. And when I do, I'm just not gonna look back."

CH: A lot of players, they say that. But some players, that chance never comes. Did that ever ...

CM: It did. Dame used to see me in there looking angry every day. Looking real angry. 'Cause I don't really hold stuff in well. So just looking mad. Like, "Dang, I don't know if I'm ever gonna play or if this is the right situation for me." Because, you know, you're happy with the team's success. But as a competitor, individually you just feel like, you know, "When am I gonna get a chance to help our team?" ...

And as the season progressed, I just watched Dame. I worked out against him, worked out with him, and just tried to compete every day and figured, as my mom would say, you don't blow an opportunity by not playing. You blow an opportunity by not being ready to play when you get a chance. So I had a lot of unknown work in front of me that I knew I put the work in but no one had seen it.

CH: Dame, most players, you know, they see somebody possibly can take minutes away from them, they wouldn't be as encouraging or forthcoming with help and advice. Why did you feel like you needed to do that in that situation?

DL: For me, I'm 100 percent confident in what I can do. And I know that in this league if you really wanna win, you're gonna need other good players. You're gonna need people that can dominate a game just like you can dominate a game. But I knew that it didn't take away who I am or what I bring to a team. And, you know, what my impact coulda been on C.J., you know, as a friend and as a teammate, I knew that could make our team better.

I wasn't looking at it like, "Oh, C.J.'s nice, too," and, "What if this happened?" and, "What if that happened?" I mean, it's gonna be what it's gonna be. But I ain't no hater. And, you know, I don't get jealous of other people's success. You know, I get happy for 'em.

CH: What are the differences in you guys' games?

CM: I think just having watched him for so many years, I even watched him when he was at Weber. My brother used to call me like, "Yo, this dude from Weber State is dope."

CH: Is that right?

CM: So I used to watch his games. And ...

CH: How you watch a Weber game?

CM: My brother had all the illegal websites. I mean, he played overseas.

DL: No, I followed his stuff. Like we was going back and forth leading the country in scoring. So, like, I was following his stuff, too.

CH: That's crazy.

CM: So I've been watching him for a long time. So I've seen how his game has kinda transformed. Seeing his pick-and-roll play, his ability to finish through contact. Obviously he's got floaters, quick lays. He's got a lotta different finishes in the lane. And then I think he's a very good passer. Underrated passer. His ability to hit the weak side -- something I've been trying to work on for three years now. I'm getting better at it slowly, but I'm inconsistent at hitting the roll/replace guy.

CH: How have you guys been able to complement one another on the court? Because from outside looking in, it seems like, "Man, there's two point guards in the backcourt."

DL: I think it's not that hard because we can do a lot of the same things. He can create a shot off the bounce. He can make a play. He can shoot off pin-downs. So if he can play off the ball and I can play off the ball, it's like if I got it going, then he know that if I come off, and people come to me, and he open, he know I'm gonna pass him the ball. And vice versa.

But the fact that we're interchangeable, I think that makes it easy to work with. You know, if it was like he can score the ball but he couldn't shoot the way he could, then it would be a little bit harder.

On Dame being compared to Steph Curry ...

CH: So Dame, where do you rank yourself among the point guards? You spoke to our Rachel Nichols during All-Star Weekend. You said you're right up there.

DL: I'm as good as any of 'em. That's what I said.

CH: Yeah, and I remember when you said that there was this big debate for, like, the next two days. Like, "Is he? Is he not?"

DL: What am I supposed to say? "They better than me?"

CH: But you do get tired of a certain narrative. You're doing things that you were doing even in your first three years. Shooting these deep 3s. And have you heard what people are saying that you're doing? Like ...

DL: What?

CH: "Oh, he's shooting 3s like ..."

DL: What? Steph Curry?

CH: Yeah.

DL: I mean, I haven't heard nobody saying it lately, but this is not new. We winning games. So now people paying attention or whatever they're gonna do.

CH: Does it bother you?

DL: No. I mean, I would prefer people to say, "He's doing what Damian Lillard does," 'cause that would tell me that they pay attention. I've been doing it since I came in the league. And the fact that they gotta use another man, somebody that I compete against, to describe what I'm doing, it's like, "Man, just say I'm doing what I've been doing since Day 1."

But, I mean, I don't get my feelings hurt about it. I think everybody know that I take it upon myself to handle it on the court. I'm always gonna do that. And I think that's the best way to go about it.

On their rivalry with the Rockets ...

CH: So going to Houston, it seemed like you guys are starting to get a little rivalry going. Chris Paul goes and scores a layup. They had the game won. You have some words with him. So my thing is this: I get it, but how much ownership should be on the losing team to play defense until the buzzer ends?

DL: If people are just walking back and you've got the ball, like, I still wouldn't shoot it. I had a situation my rookie year where the ball was thrown ahead to me and nobody was back. And I was standing right under the basket.

CH: I remember that.

DL: It was against the Bulls. I dunked it 'cause I was under the basket and nobody came back. So after I dunked it, they walked up like, "Man, what you doin'? Blah, blah, blah." And I was like, "Man, whatever." Like, I wasn't tripping. I wasn't trying to disrespect 'em. But I was just standing under the basket. So after the game, the vets, they explained it to me. And I was like, man, I felt bad.

'Cause I was like I didn't even have to shoot it. Regardless of where I was on the court, that's like running the score up. That's like a slap in the face to them. The game is over. And so, I mean, going back to Houston, if that woulda happened -- like, if he woulda just been playing the game out, then whatever. But it was two people back. Me and [Shabazz Napier] sprinted back. So it wouldn't be like we just stopping.

C.J. was chasing him down the court. He sprinted to go get the layup. So it was like, he's been in the league a long time. So I was just like, "Man, what type of play is that? What's that about?" And he was like, "Y'all ain't playing defense." So I was like, "All right." And I tried to hit the ball outta his hand. And I didn't like it. It was that simple. I didn't like it.

CH: What about you, C?

CM: I think he's got a point.

DL: We literally were sprinting back for that reason.

CM: We've been on both sides. 'Cause when I was a younger player, I didn't care. I don't care if you don't like it. If I want to dunk it, I'm gonna dunk it. 'Cause it's a game and that's just how I'm built, how I'm wired. But as you get older, I mean, it's some things you should do, some things you shouldn't do. But I think just put it like this. Ain't gonna be no more layups. Not if I'm around.

DL: We're gonna play to zeroes on the clock. I mean a strong contest at the rim.

CM: I'm just gonna play till zero. It's on both ends.

On how Vanterpool helped develop Dame's leadership ...

CH: How instrumental has [Vanterpool] been for those that don't know?

DL: Before my first training camp, we was playing pickup. I was scoring. I was playing good. But I wasn't saying nothing. Like, not one word. And he stopped the game. And he was like, "You've gotta say 10 words before you get to half court every possession."

So before I get to half court, I didn't know what to say. I was saying stuff like, "That's my man. Go over there." I was just saying random stuff.

And it was so uncomfortable for me 'cause I didn't know, like, the other players that well. They didn't know me like that. But I had to say something. And I think that was, like, the beginning of me starting to be a leader and starting to, like, be cool with being uncomfortable.

Vanterpool: It was about being comfortable, being uncomfortable. Because it was a new situation. He's a rookie who was gonna play minutes. So, I mean, how do you command the attention of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and those type of players that have been in and around the league?

And, you know, are they gonna listen to him and he doesn't say anything? It's like you had to be the point guard. It was funny 'cause I remember the look he gave me when I first said that to him. He looked at me like I had three heads. And he was looking at me like, "What?" [Laughs]

DL: "What am I supposed to say?"

DV: You know, best part was he just took to it and did it. And it was like, you know, whether I knew what I was talking about or not, it didn't matter. He just was like, "OK, this is my coach." He said, "Let's do it."

On player-ref relations ...

CH: How do you guys feel officiating has been this year and the relationships that you have with refs?

DL: I don't think it's a bad relationship. I think refs got a hard job. A lotta times the game is so fast. Plays happen. And sometimes one thing'll happen, and I'll be sure in my mind, like, that was off him. And then when I see it later, they'll have it right. Or I might think I got fouled. And then when I see it later, it's like, "All right. That was, like, minimal contact."

So I think, you know, their job is so tough. And as competitors we just get so locked in to the game. And we fired up about what's happening that, you know, sometimes even we could be delusional. And, you know, we see the stripes. We don't always look at them as men or as people. And I think that's part of the problem.

And, you know, the way we address 'em sometimes, I kinda gotta take a step back and put myself in their shoes. If I got a dude screaming and walking up over me, I'm like, at the end of the day, I'm a man. You ain't gonna just disrespect me. So then you see where a quick tech might come from. Or where you might get a certain vibe from a referee or a attitude that you might feel like they giving you and this. I think that's a two-way street.

I mean, obviously in any job you do you're gonna struggle. Just like we have it wrong sometimes, they have it wrong sometimes. But I don't think it's that deep. Obviously it could be better between the players and the referees. But, I mean, we out there competing. And they trying to get every play right. And it's a tough game to call, man. So I think that's what it comes down to.

CM: I think he hit everything on the head, you know?

CH: He hit everything?

CM: I don't shoot a lot of free throws, man. So ... [Laughs]

CH: Well, is that a complaint?

CM: I'm just saying. [Laughs] Look at the stats, man.

CH: Why don't you shoot a lotta free throws?

DL: He said, "I don't shoot a lotta free throws." [Laughs]

CM: I don't know. I think I'm the first player in NBA history to average 20 points a game and shoot two free throws per game.

DL: All buckets.

CM: I get all field goals. [Laughs]

On LeBron's future ...

CH: People say you guys are one piece away. And probably one of the biggest pieces to hit free agency would be LeBron James this summer. Where do you guys think he'll end up?

CM: Trying to make headlines, huh? [Laughs]

CH: I'm just asking the question.

CM: You know, I'm from Canton, Ohio. I ain't trying to start no rumors or anything like that, man. But streets have been talking to me, man.

DL: What you heard? What the streets saying, man?

CM: The streets saying my man outta there. [Laughs] I don't know. I don't know. You'd have to ask Bron. I don't know where my man going, man. He could go wherever he want, though.

On their place among the best backcourts ...

CH: So among the best backcourts in the league, where do you guys fit in at?

CM: What we got? Forty wins right now? So I'd say we're doing pretty well. Some teams got more wins than us. Some teams got less.

CH: Is that the only criteria you go by?

CM: I think that's what matters at this point. Like, everybody nice. You go through every team with good guards. Everybody can shoot off the dribble for the most part. Some guys is very good at assisting others. Some guys is stupid athletic. Everybody nice. I think it's just about winning at this point. Like, no one's gonna remember 20 years from now what somebody averaged and point to the 10th decimal point.

DL: Ain't playing two-on-two.

CM: They gonna remember how your team did when it mattered. How many times did you go to the playoffs? How many times did you get 50 wins? Did you win a championship? Did you get to the Western or Eastern Conference finals? How was your path to the [NBA] Finals? All that stuff. And that's what matters. I'm not about to argue about who better 'cause I'm 26 now. Man, I don't really care who better.

DL: I do. I think we as good as any backcourt. We get to the playoffs every year. We haven't had the playoff success that we wanna have. And that's what we're working toward. But we get the job done when it come to winning games. There's a lot of people in the league that they're not in the playoffs consistently.

I think we find a way to get that done every year. And whenever we matched up against whoever, we out there bangin'. We going at everybody. And we standing up to every matchup. So I think like he said, nobody gonna look back and be like, "Oh, they averaged the most points during this time." It's gonna come down to, like, wins and your team's success. But I think if that's a discussion, we as good as any backcourt.

CM: It depend on your cup of tea. I like my cup of tea.