Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers sizzled in the first few games of the season, but his early hot streak abruptly ended when a calf injury flared up against the Miami Heat.
An MRI revealed a low-grade right calf strain. Lillard will undergo another evaluation in a week or so, depending on how his injury responds to treatments.
Through the first five games of the season, Lillard led the Blazers with 31 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game. He shot 39.2% from 3-point range, 49.5% overall from the floor, and 93% from the free-throw line.
He had scored 22 points in 26 minutes against the Heat on Wednesday night before exiting the game in the third quarter.
I mean honestly, if this was a playoff game, I would have played,” Lillard said after the game.
The Blazers lost their first game of the season when the Heat took advantage of a Lillard-less team and cruised to a 23-point victory.
The Trail Blazers were +800 odds to win the Northwest Division in the preseason. After a 4-1 start, their division odds jumped to +380.
Another Season, Another Injury for Lillard
The Trail Blazers are being extra cautious when dealing with their superstar. Lillard missed the second half of last season while recovering from core stomach surgery. It was a lingering injury that bothered him the previous season and during the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics.
Lillard played through the pain in the first half of the 2021-22 season, but the core injury clearly affected his long-ranging shooting. His scoring average declined by five points per game. He also struggled to connect on normal 3-pointers last season, shooting 32% compared to 39.1% and 40.1% in his previous two seasons. The dip in his stats was clear-cut evidence that the core injury was a serious issue. Lillard opted for surgery after appearing in just 29 games.
A healthy Lillard led the Trail Blazers to a quick 4-0 record at the start of this season. Lillard averaged 33.3 points per game while shooting 53.3% from 3-point range. He posted back-to-back 40-point games last weekend. He dropped 41 points in an overtime victory against the Phoenix Suns, and then dumped another 41 points against the struggling Los Angeles Lakers.
Everything I did this summer is adding up,” said Lillard. “I feel fast, I feel strong, I don’t get tired, and I don’t want to lose that. So I have to be patient, and I can’t get ahead of myself.”
The good news is that the Trail Blazers only have one game on the schedule this weekend, and play only three other games next week and next weekend. The Trail Blazers host the Houston Rockets (1-4) Friday night in Portland. Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies (4-1) visit Rip City next Wednesday, before the Trail Blazers head to Phoenix for a two-game stand against the Suns (3-1) next weekend.
Rip City Blazers Start 4-0
The Trail Blazers jumped out to a 4-0 record in October with a revamped team centered around Lillard and emerging star guard Anfernee Simons. The front office essentially gutted the roster from last season by trading away key players like CJ McCollum and Norman Powell.
Simons had a break-out season last year with Lillard sidelined. He averaged 17.3 points per game while knocking down 40.5% of his 3-point attempts. At the start of this season, Simons is averaging 18.6 ppg. While Lillard nurses his calf injury, the Trail Blazers will lean on Simons once again to pick up the scoring slack.
It’s one of those things where if we can’t be OK in these moments, then who are we for real?” Lillard told The Athletic. “It’s really going to come down to us as a unit, not just me. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. But we have to be mature enough and strong enough as a team to just kind of keep rolling.”
In the offseason, the Trail Blazers brought in several veterans through trades or free-agent signings, including forward Jerami Grant and guard Gary Payton II. They also selected guard Shaedon Sharpe with the seventh-overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.
The new roster moves seemed to work right away after the Trail Blazers won the first four games of the season and rocketed to the top of the Western Conference standings.
Without Lillard in the lineup over the next week or so, the other Trail Blazers will get a chance to shine. Grant emerged as their third-best scorer, averaging 15.8 points per game. Josh Hart averages 10.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game as a wing player. Big man Jusuf Nurkic averages 10.8 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
Sharpe is only averaging 16.4 minutes per game off the bench, but the rookie contributes 8.4 points per game. With Lillard out, Sharpe’s playing time should increase.
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