As the shell-shocked Portland Trail Blazers dressed in the visiting locker room in New Orleans, processing a humiliating sweep that stretched their postseason losing to streak 10 games, Paul Allen, the team's longtime owner, walked in to address them.
Allen typically thanked the team after the final game each season. He began by congratulating them on 49 wins and the No. 3 seed. His tone turned serious. The playoffs were the NBA's "litmus test," he said, using a phrase he would repeat often during the tense next month of evaluation. The sweep was "unacceptable," Allen told them, according to several sources who were there. (Allen tragically passed away less than six months later of complications related to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.)
The language unnerved some players and staff. They feared a shakeup -- feared for their jobs. Damian Lillard had been readying himself for any outcome since the New Orleans Pelicans won Game 2 in Portland. Phil Beckner, one of Lillard's coaches at Weber State and a confidante since, texted Lillard after that game to see if he needed anything. "Door's open," Lillard replied. Beckner knew what that meant: Come over.
They stayed up until 1:30 a.m. Lillard flipped from ESPN to TNT, watching silently as commentators ripped him and the team -- ripped his 13-of-41 shooting through two games, his seven turnovers in Game 2, his quaking in the face of New Orleans' trapping defense.
"He just sat and sighed -- deep breaths," Beckner says. "It affected him."
"I remember watching and thinking, 'Man, this can't be how it's supposed to end,'" Lillard says. "It was draining to deal with those first two losses and even harder to sleep after watching [the media] drag us."
They never recovered. Portland had abruptly reached the point at which a lot of good teams fracture. Someone powerful -- the owner, the star -- loses trust in the coach. Teammates whisper about each other: He didn't get the job done. Why does he play over me?
Ownership came close to firing Terry Stotts, several sources say. Teams with head-coaching vacancies, including Phoenix, began engaging third parties about Stotts' potential interest in their jobs, sources say.
But the Blazers didn't break. Lillard fought for Stotts. "I was asked what I thought, and I just said I love him as a coach," Lillard says. "We all love him." (They show it, too. When Stotts moved into third place on Portland's all-time win list last season, CJ McCollum bought him an $1,800 bottle of Bordeaux.)
Neil Olshey, the team's GM, fought even harder. They haven't always seen eye-to-eye, but entering their seventh year together, Stotts and Olshey have developed an understanding: Olshey stays away from players who don't fit Stotts' style, and Stotts coaches what he gets. The players will never see them at odds in any serious, prolonged way. There is no taking sides in Portland because there are no sides at the highest levels.
That ethos extends into the locker room. Last summer, Lillard overheard a teammate grumbling about minutes, questioning why another teammate played more. "Don't be that guy," Lillard told him, according to Beckner.
Lillard and McCollum tolerate no squabbling, or blame games. They understand how one comment can lead to another, and engender resentment that erodes a team's culture. That code saved the Blazers in the aftermath of the sweep. Lillard heaped blame on himself, publicly and privately. Everyone else saw that, and looked inward.
"I grew up that way," Lillard says. "Let's say we had to clean the house, and my job was to clean the kitchen. My brother is supposed to do the bathroom. My sister is supposed to clean the living room. If I do my job but that other stuff ain't done, then we didn't do it. That was my upbringing. We all go down together."
They convinced Allen to give everyone at least one more season. In turn, they promised changes: more shooting around Evan Turner on second units, rejiggered rotation patterns that would have Lillard and McCollum playing more together, tweaks to freshen the offense. They vowed to get off to a better start after hitting the midway point of each of the past three seasons around .500 -- requiring sprints for playoff positioning.
(Lillard rolled his ankle in Portland's 78th game last season, and gutted through pain to help them clinch the third seed. The team wonders how their first-round series might have unfolded if they had been able to rest Lillard down the stretch.)
So far, they have rewarded Allen's faith: 11-5 against a tough schedule. They have one of the league's nastiest schedules over the first three-plus months. If they are five or six games over .500 by mid-January -- when they have typically started ascending -- they should be in good position.
"Hopefully we're not playing late games that feel like playoff games," McCollum says.
With Houston scuffling, the Blazers wonder: Why can't we finish second in the Western Conference? (They actually enter tonight tied for first.) But that would not inoculate them from another franchise-shaking upset. It wouldn't even guarantee they'd be sizable favorites in the first round. Lose again, and they'd have to contemplate whether they can keep going with this same central cast. Regardless: Don't expect them to break up Lillard and McCollum just to do it.
Winning between 45 and 50 games is not considered NBA purgatory in Portland. Small-market front offices do not have the luxury of busting up decent teams in hopes that tanking or free agency brings something more.
They are proud at having suffered only two downtrodden seasons after losing Brandon Roy and Greg Oden -- and eventually LaMarcus Aldridge -- for nothing. The first of those lottery trips netted Lillard, a gift from the Nets in a ludicrous trade for Gerald Wallace. That deal, and that pick, changed everything for Portland. It gave them a life raft when Aldridge left.
When Aldridge left in July 2015, Olshey sensed a chance to go younger. That would bring pain. Lillard signaled he was ready, and that he would not interject into Olshey's business. He told coaches he felt no need to weigh in on practice times, shootaround schedules, and day-to-day minutia stars often influence.
But in 2015, Lillard didn't fully understand the ceaseless burden of leadership -- that everything he did, and said, mattered. Hours before a game that season, Lillard stood under the basket watching as Portland's deep reserves and younger staffers went four-on-four to simulate game action they would never get. The game grew heated, and Lillard chuckled at the spectacle.
Jay Triano, then an assistant with the Blazers, turned to Lillard. "What's funny?" he asked. "These guys are working their asses off, and you think it's a joke?" (Triano remembers adding: "This is their time!") Triano softened his voice and reminded Lillard that everyone would take cues from him now.
"It hit home," Lillard says. "I felt bad. I didn't mean it that way, but it could have caused the guys to look at me differently."
That version of Lillard wanted to lead by example -- silently. The younger Blazers needed more. Chris Kaman, who played in Portland from 2014 to 2016, urged Lillard to speak up. Earl Watson, by then an assistant coach in Phoenix, had been nudging Lillard to assert himself since the 2013-14 season -- when Watson played in Portland, and Aldridge was still there.
"He was always telling me," Lillard says, "'For this organization to go where it needs to, you have to take control. You have it in you.'"
Lillard grew into the role. It helped finding a co-star in McCollum who shares much of his basketball belief system. They project a united front, too. Lillard will tell teammates, politely but firmly, when they are doing something wrong in a game or falling short of the team's practice standards. They listen, because he is the best player, but also because Lillard holds himself accountable and takes all the blame publicly when things go wrong.
He invites rookies to work out with him, and has players on 10-day contracts over to his house. He organizes dinners and team activities. He texts the coaches who follow Portland's young players in the offseason for updates on how those players are improving.
Last summer's text chain centered around one theme: Get off to a good start. They've done that, and they're not surprised.
"The sweep made us stronger," McCollum says. "We didn't point fingers. There's nothing for us to be afraid of, because the worst has already happened."
They digested the series as a cold outside analyst might: They played poorly against a hot team with matchup advantages.
"We didn't fracture because we knew we were better than how we played," Lillard says. "Nobody said, 'Oh, so-and-so, you didn't do that.' We got our ass whooped. We are sharper because of it. You get back to work. You show that you are a better team than that."
A lot of Portland's core players are in their third seasons together, and that continuity shines. The Blazers don't have to spend the first 20 games figuring out who they are. They whip through mazes of cuts and off-ball screens, improvising when the defense telegraphs a response:
Lillard is at the height of his powers. He spent the summer honing his off-the-bounce game so no pressure defense would unnerve him again. With nothing more than winks and raised eyebrows, Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic choose the best pick-and-roll option based on how the defense reveals itself -- a chemistry that is especially deadly when Stotts clears one side of the floor for them:
The Blazers have scored 1.3 points per possession on any trip featuring a Lillard/Nurkic pick-and-roll, one of the dozen highest figures among hundreds of duos, per Second Spectrum. The Lillard/Zach Collins combination is even meaner: 1.4 points per possession, second overall.
Collins is thriving at both big man spots, but he projects as an ideal complementary stretch center. He can protect the rim, switch on defense, pop for 3-pointers, and brutalize little guys in the post when defenses switch against him.
For Collins to rise, Ed Davis had to go. Davis was beloved, including by Lillard. But the Blazers needed to see what they had in Collins. His progress helps them on the court, and in the trade market.
Nurkic, meanwhile, is enjoying a career year. When defenses trap Lillard, Nurkic rampages to the offensive glass; he has singlehandedly transformed Portland into a top-10 offensive rebounding team, allowing everyone else to get back on defense.
The Blazers know who they are on that end, too. They quash fast breaks, drop Nurkic back on the pick-and-roll, stay home on 3-point shooters, and coax opponents into midrange jumpers. Portland ranks eighth in points allowed per possession. They have lured opponents into the second-stingiest expected effective field-goal percentage based on the location of each shot and nearby defenders, per Second Spectrum.
But Olshey and Stotts understood they could not run back everything. Teams had caught onto some of what the Blazers do. In summer pickup games, Lillard and McCollum noticed coaches were pairing them up more than usual. Before the season, Stotts took his two stars to dinner -- a tradition -- and broke the news: He would play them more together after rigidly staggering their minutes in prior seasons.
It required a bigger adjustment for McCollum, who enjoyed taking the reins when Lillard rested. "That was my time to be aggressive," he says. "Now I just have to do it early."
It allowed Stotts to broaden his offense. The Blazers have sprinkled in more two-man action between Lillard and McCollum away from the ball.
"That was a point of emphasis, and something I struggled with," Stotts says. "We are one of the best pick-and-roll teams in the league. How much do we want to go away from that?" So far, variety has helped.
McCollum and Lillard have logged 513 minutes together already, most of any duo in the league; Portland is plus-120 over those minutes. Turner is now the bench alpha dog, with imported shooters -- saucy Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry -- flanking him. Turner needs the ball. There will always be diminishing returns giving it to him when Lillard and McCollum are on the floor.
Stotts admits he is a little nervous running out full bench mobs. It will test him. In the first quarter at Indiana on Oct. 29, Portland was behind when it came time to substitute for Lillard. Stotts debated. "I thought, 'Well, this is it,'" he says. Olshey watched in suspense. Stotts removed Lillard as scheduled. Portland's bench outscored the Pacers 54-15.
"That was an important moment," Stotts says.
There will be others. Portland is plus-15 in 204 minutes with Lillard and McCollum on the bench, but their offense has cratered. Getting Moe Harkless back from injury will round out both the starting and reserve groups. He is a sneakily important cog, and the importance of a journeyman gets at why the Blazers keep banging against the same postseason ceiling: the gap between their second-best player and everyone else is too big.
For all the tweaks along the margins, this is still broadly the same team, with the same flaws waiting to be exposed in the wrong playoff matchup. Big guards will bully Lillard and McCollum in slower, grimier playoff games. Nurkic struggles guarding stretchy centers, leaving Al-Farouq Aminu to jostle with Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis. Aminu is tireless and versatile, but inverting matchups that way mutes the impact of both him and Nurkic.
Portland gets more switchy with Collins at center -- Aminu even can play as the long big if they need to go super-small -- but there are intractable limits to the switchability of any team so reliant on two small guards. Cutesy three-guard lineups, with either Stauskas or Curry alongside the two stars, will melt defending elite offenses.
Teams ignore Portland's rangier wings -- Turner, Harkless, and Aminu -- to clog the paint and smother Lillard and McCollum. Sometimes the game is simple: Portland will survive only for as long as those guys make enough open 3s.
Aminu is shooting 38 percent from deep. Turner is 4-of-22, but Portland's shooters are smart about slingshotting Turner through the corridors that open when defenders abandon him:
Their starting lineup with Turner in place of Jake Layman is obliterating teams. Ditto for lineups featuring Collins at center.
Still: The Blazers might just be a better regular-season team than playoff team. Fall short again, and the cries to trade McCollum will grow louder.
But Portland cannot take a talent on McCollum's level for granted. There is no guarantee they will acquire anyone that good over the next decade. They want to supplement the Lillard/McCollum duo with a third impact player, per sources around the league.
They will not get Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, or Jimmy Butler. But how different would they look if they traded for a wing on the level of Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton? They could dangle their first-round pick to chase someone like Taurean Prince, hoping he develops into a real 3-and-D starter with more off-the-bounce juice than Harkless or Aminu. Perhaps they could wrest Otto Porter Jr. from Washington. Throw a player like that alongside Lillard, McCollum and Collins, and Portland's future looks interesting. If Golden State breaks up, why couldn't the Blazers dream big?
Collins is emerging as a super-valuable trade chip. The Blazers don't want to trade him, and almost certainly won't in the near term. But with few tradable contracts, they needed someone to pop. Collins' leap turns Nurkic into a trade chip, too. Some of those fat contracts expire soon, opening up flexibility.
It is still hard to see a path to the NBA Finals. Even if Durant leaves, the Warriors will have three stars. LeBron is just starting in L.A. The Clippers may have the inside track on Leonard. Other teams will upgrade.
There is nothing wrong with hovering around 50 wins and waiting for some big break that opens a path into June. Maybe you nail a pick in the 20s. Maybe Collins becomes a top-35 player. Maybe one injury warps the playoff landscape in the right year.
Lillard is patient. "Good things come to good people, even if you get swept somewhere along the way," he says. "This is what goes through my mind: I'm gonna be in my 11th year or something here, I'm gonna stick with it, and we're gonna make the Finals."
"In Portland," he says.
And if they don't?
"I've treated people the right way," Lillard says. "I've put in the work. And because of that, if it doesn't happen, I can live with it. I'll have enjoyed the ride. It's worth it."