The Portland Trail Blazers knew they would be without star guard Damian Lillard during a six-game road trip, but now the situation is more severe.
Lillard is slated to undergo abdominal surgery on Thursday, the same day the Trail Blazers open the long excursion against the Denver Nuggets.
The 31-year-old Lillard has missed the past five games but has been experiencing issues all season. He reportedly aggravated the injury during the Tokyo Olympics while playing for Team USA in the summer.
Lillard is slated to be re-evaluated in six to eight weeks and while the Trail Blazers will be without a six-time All-Star, they won’t receive much sympathy from the Nuggets.
Jamal Murray (knee) has missed the entire season and Michael Porter Jr. (back) has been sidelined for much of the season. So any time the Nuggets have a chance to win a game is magnified.
Denver blew an opportunity — and a 25-point lead — in losing at the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night, and after the game coach Michael Malone ripped into his team’s effort. Malone will see how impactful his criticism was when the Nuggets battle Portland.
The Trail Blazers — three years removed from reaching the Western Conference finals — have struggled in coach Chauncey Billups’ debut season at the helm. Portland has won two straight games after dropping six of seven and now comes a lengthy road trip.
The Blazers just finished a 3-2 homestand with a win over Brooklyn on Monday night. The game was originally scheduled for Dec. 23, but COVID-19 issues postponed the game.
Portland beat the Nets despite not having Lillard and three other key players: CJ McCollum (collapsed lung), Norman Powell (COVID-19 protocol) and Larry Nance Jr. (right knee).
McCollum will miss his 17th straight game on Thursday. Billups said McCollum won’t join the team on the road trip until his wife gives birth to the couple’s first child.
The absence of the two best players has given others a chance to shine. Against Brooklyn on Monday, Robert Covington helped lead the way with 21 points and played solid defense on Kevin Durant.
Covington has been a starter, but he moved to a reserve role when Nance became the starter.
“My mentality never changed and my approach never changed,” Covington said. “Just because I wasn’t starting didn’t mean that anything was going to be different. I was still going to do the same thing that I was doing. Just the only thing was that me and Larry were going to flip-flop positions.”
Thursday will be the third meeting between the teams, with the Nuggets winning in Denver on Nov. 14 and Portland winning at home on Nov. 23.
The Nuggets have been inconsistent throughout the season, racking up solid wins on the road but also losing due to poor play after halftime. They held the Clippers to 28 points in the first half on Tuesday and led 59-34 at one point, but they were outscored the rest of the way.
“Losses like this are going to keep me awake for weeks,” Malone said. “I think today’s NBA player — they’re worrying about where they’re going out tonight. We had a lot of guys running away from the ball in big moments.”
Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon, who combined for 32 of 44 points in the second half, didn’t run away from the moment. Jokic missed a 3-pointer at the end that would have won it, but the team knew it should have never come down to that.
“That’s our season right now,” Jokic said. “Sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re bad.”
–Field Level Media