Portland Trail Blazers’ CJ McCollum started this season on a tear, as he and teammate Damian Lillard were the best backcourt duo in the NBA this season. McCollum was scoring nearly 27 points per game on efficient 47.3% shooting, including 44.1% from three. When he was injured during Portland’s defeat of the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 16, it seemed the team would suffer in his absence, leaving too much pressure on Lillard, especially since starting center Jusuf Nurkić was also out due to injury.
Since seeing two of his best teammates benched due to injury, Lillard has taken his already stellar play to new heights as the team’s floor general. Starting with that game in Atlanta, he was successful on the offensive end, scoring 29 or more points in nine of his 12 performances. Lillard went toe-to-toe with some of the best perimeter scorers in the league, including Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks, Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards and Trae Young of Atlanta. Lillard can hold his own against some of the league’s best three-point shooters despite facing more pressure without the other half of his dynamic duo.
Portland is currently the fifth seed in the strong Western Conference thanks to Lillard, barely trailing the Phoenix Suns for the fourth seed. The point guard has led the team to multiple wins the past few weeks, even without help from McCollum and Nurkić, two of the team’s top five players.
These past few years with McCollum as a strong scoring guard mark the second stretch of Lillard’s career, where he has been part of one of the league’s elite dynamic duos. When he was drafted in 2012, Lillard joined Portland, led at the time by established veteran LaMarcus Aldridge, an elite rebounder who thrived on the mid-range jump shot.
In Lillard’s second year in Portland, Aldridge went down with an injury, forcing him to miss more than two weeks of action to finish the month of February. In those two weeks, even without their veteran leader, Portland won four of their five games against some stiff opposition, largely thanks to Lillard producing some of the best scoring outputs of his young career.
Lillard scored at least 28 points in each of the first four games, an unprecedented streak in his NBA experience at the time. His 27.2 points per game over those five games were a far cry from the 20.7 he averaged over the course of that whole regular season — including his hot streak without Aldridge. Lillard demonstrated he was capable of being the primary scorer on a successful team for a short time, something that had not been tested when Aldridge was healthy throughout the previous year and a half.
Just as he did nine years ago, Lillard thrives despite unexpected setbacks.
Aldridge has since left Portland, and Lillard has become one of the league’s best scorers, with McCollum a more than serviceable second option. The Lillard-McCollum duo carries the team to the playoffs annually, even reaching the conference finals in 2019. Since becoming Portland’s clear leader in 2015, Lillard has been one of the league’s best perimeter players, though he now proves he maintains this status even without another great player in the backcourt.
Despite more defensive attention over the last 10 games than almost ever before in his career, Lillard is putting up great scoring numbers and finding his teammates for assists. He is poised to make his fourth consecutive appearance in an All-Star game.
Lillard has shown time and time again he can thrive without an elite second option, making his latest offensive tear unsurprising. While Portland is not desperate for McCollum to return, the backcourt’s chemistry should help the team maintain their position in the Western Conference standings and make yet another playoff push.
Jake Wexelblatt is a junior in the College. Deja Vu All Over Again appears online every other week.