“We’ve got sixty games left.”
That was Terry Stotts’ response to a beat writer asking whether tonight’s 98-90 victory over San Antonio might help Damian Lillard’s chances at snaring Rookie of the Year. It’s a sneakily illuminating answer; you learn quickly that no matter what happens on any given night, the defining characteristic of the NBA season is its length. Almost everything coaches and players say, I now realize, is a way of mitigating the exhaustion that length can wreak.
A game like tonight’s, of course, is its own inoculation against weariness. This was almost certainly the Blazers’ best win of the season, coming against an opponent of San Antonio’s caliber with important players missing time or nursing nagging injuries. It was a classic Rose Garden crowd—excited, almost hostile in its anxiety—and Damian Lillard played what most will call his best game as a pro. But after this game, there are sixty games left.
And so the clichés are trotted out in the locker room. “I never get too high, I never get too low,” says LaMarcus Aldridge. A classic copout, approaching “one game at a time” in its near-platonic inanity. Nic Batum took a step up the ladder of meaning: “Focus.” As in, focus on the next opponent, bring the energy from the victory, so on and so forth. When Batum talks, you can tell he’s engaged in the conversation, and that he’s drawing the right arrow out of the quiver for your question, but it’s a small quiver in an NBA locker room.
And then there’s Damian Lillard. At this point, I prefer not to ask Damian Lillard questions. I like to listen to his monotone command of the scrum, the veteran savvy with which he grinds the possibility of meaning out of reporters’ questions. This sounds like I’m being snide, but I am not. Damian’s flat affect postgame may in fact be the single trait most deserving of that hackneyed descriptor “poise.”
If you spend a lifetime reading sports quotes, you get sick of this stuff. But when you see Nic Batum joking about being too sore to guard Tony Parker with three quarters of a season left to play, it starts to make sense. There’s too much basketball. There are too many practices. Plane rides. Pressers. Shootarounds. You can’t just go around ascribing meaning to every event, or you’ll become too exhausted to continue.
Think of it like this: 82 games is a season’s worth of emotion stretched as thin as it can possibly be stretched. Like a weak bridge spanning October to April: there is nearly too much chasm to be traversed without trestles. So you step very gingerly on each of the 82 boards, and that way you make it to the other end. I’m starting to realize, 22 games into my first season covering a single team, that these clichés are half-truth and half-necessity, and that a season really is fueled by the mundane satisfactions and disappointments. Wins help, losses hurt, and there are always more games to be played than you have played, until there aren’t.
So when Damian Lillard is fending off reporters in front of his locker, he may be showing a stability more important than the sturdy knees Portland so desperately needs. He’s showing that he understands the fissures in the ground beneath his feet, the danger of declaring a turning point that turns out to have been just another December basketball game. Even footing, every step.
Tellingly, the one time I saw him truly animated was talking to another reporter about his strategy for breaking down defenders with his dribble. Pantomiming a ball in his hand, he told this reporter about how he explores defenders’ tendencies with certain kinds of ballhandling. Craft—that’s what it’s safe to talk about, and Damian was effusive about craft.
And so back to Stotts. His hiring was maligned in part because of his NBA mileage. How could a coach with so many stops under his belt reinvent himself? Could he somehow at this point in his career transcend mediocrity? It remains an open question. But his insistence on taking the long view, I believe, is perhaps his greatest asset to this franchise. If he proves to lack innovation, then he lacks innovation, but among the people associated with the team today, Stotts has by far the most insight into just how much sustained effort NBA success requires.
When I asked him after the game whether the past two wins were something the team would refer to for the remainder of the season, he said “I don’t know…You go through the course of a season, you don’t know which games you look back on. I think there are turning points good and bad, but you don’t know until some time passes. Maybe we’ll look back on this one, maybe we won’t.”
Blazers fans will almost certainly look back on this one. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this team is that it may not.