PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers have won eight of their last nine games and are on a season-high 6-game winning streak that is creating buzz locally and nationally. The winning streak has come as a surprise to pretty much everyone outside of the Blazers organization as Portland is still without starters CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic and have been for more than a month.
There are several factors to attribute to the winning streak, from the team’s current starting lineup statistically dominating opponents, to improved defensive play, to a stretch of games that included just one opponent with a winning record (the Philadelphia 76ers, who the Blazers beat twice). But one man has gotten most of the attention, and deservedly so: Damian Lillard.
Lillard has been one of the most clutch players in the NBA since the Blazers drafted him in 2012, and his ability to close out games has shined bright in the national spotlight this past week. It started when Lillard hit what ended up being a game-winning 3-pointer in a 34-point performance to beat the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday night, a game that was aired on ESPN. And even though the season isn’t even to the midway point, many of ESPN’s personalities argued the next day that Lillard should be in the Most Valuable Player (MVP) conversation. The Dame for MVP campaign was born.
That was the big topic of conversation on the latest episode of KGW’s 3-on-3 Blazers podcast, hosted by KGW sports anchor Orlando Sanchez, alongside KGW's Jared Cowley, Nate Hanson and Max Barr. (Story continues below)
LISTEN: KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers Podcast
The Dame for MVP campaign has only gained steam in the two games since Portland’s win over Dallas. After blowing a 24-point lead against the Oklahoma City Thunder Tuesday, Lillard made four 3-pointers in the final four and a half minutes to seal a 115-104 victory. Lillard followed that Superman effort with one even more impressive 24 hours later. The Blazers superstar scored 43 points, dished 16 assists, tying a career-high, and made the game-winning layup to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 126-124. Following the win, Lillard's teammates tweeted that he is the MVP right now.
Not only have Lillard's clutch performances paved the way for him to enter the still-early MVP conversation, but the Blazers stringing together wins has also played a role. History tells us it’s difficult for anyone to win the MVP without being on one of the top teams in the NBA. Riding this 6-game winning streak, Portland is now 18-10 this season, sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference with the fifth-best record in the NBA. And, again, they’ve accomplished all of this despite not having CJ McCollum, who appeared to be having the best season of his career before getting hurt, and Jusuf Nurkic, who plays a pivotal role for the Blazers both offensively and defensively.
The ingredients are there for a full season press from the Dame for MVP campaign. By traditional stats, Lillard is one of the elite players in the league, ranking third in the NBA in scoring, averaging 29.8 points per game, and seventh in assists, averaging 7.7 per game. By advanced metrics, Lillard ranks top-10 in the NBA in win shares, value over replacement player and box score plus-minus. If he continues to play at this high of a level, he’ll stay in the conversation.
What will catapult Lillard from in the MVP conversation to winner is more winning from the Blazers. Lillard will be up against players like LeBron James and Joel Embiid, whose teams are among the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. The Blazers must continue to climb the Western Conference standings and be in the same neighborhood as teams like the Los Angeles Lakers at season’s end. Given that the Blazers are expected to add the talents of McCollum and Nurkic at some point in the second half of the season, it’s certainly a possibility. It's a necessity for Lillard to be crowned MVP.
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LISTEN: KGW's 3-on-3 Blazers Podcast