Damian Lillard pulled his teammates into an impromptu huddle. It was time.
It wasn’t an elimination game, but the way he saw it, there were slightly more than two minutes left in the Portland Trail Blazers’ season.
“Are you all ready to go home? If we don’t finish this out, that’s where we’re going to be headed,” he said.
Of course, they were already at home, at Moda Center, but the gifted point guard was talking figuratively. A loss in Game 3 after dropping the first two means playoff death in a seven-game series. All 118 NBA teams that faced 3-0 deficits failed to advance.
But Portland expanded its one-point lead Saturday after Lillard’s on-court briefing and closed to within 2-1 in a first-round series against the Clippers.
The “Keep Portland Weird” mantra of this eclectic Northwest city can be found on T-shirts and bumper stickers, and there can hardly be a bigger statistical anomaly than Mason Plumlee’s in Game 3 — six points, 21 rebounds and nine assists.
A player hadn’t taken that many rebounds for Portland in a playoff game since Sam Bowie in 1985. And nine assists? Just as many as Chris Paul that night.
The Clippers focused on young Portland guards Lillard and C.J. McCollum, which didn’t go so well either, and forgot entirely about the center. Oops.
“We didn’t plan for him to get nine assists and 20 rebounds but we wanted other people to kind of make plays,” Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said.
Experience, not youth, wins championships in this league, an apparent problem for a Portland team without a starter over 26.
The Trail Blazers lost veteran forward LaMarcus Aldridge to San Antonio via free agency last summer. This was not helpful to the cause. Neither was trading Nicolas Batum to Charlotte in a cost-cutting move last June.
And yet the Trail Blazers’ backcourt has everyone here excited about the future.
Lillard and McCollum outscored the Clippers’ starting guards in Game 3, 59-31, making Monday’s game, also in Portland, more meaningful.
Teams trying to rebuild through the draft — Lakers, are you listening? — can take comfort in Portland’s recent aptitude. McCollum was drafted 10th overall in 2013 out of Lehigh and Lillard was sixth overall in 2012 out of Weber State.
Now they’re probably the NBA’s second-best backcourt after only one season together as starters.
“Me and C.J., we’ve had the conversation,” Lillard said before mentioning the Golden State Warriors’ duo. “Obviously, Klay [Thompson] and Steph [Curry], they’re a championship team. You’ve got to give them their respect.”
Portland’s lack of success over the decades — no championships since 1977, no NBA Finals appearances since 1992 — hasn’t dimmed the enthusiasm here.
Trail Blazers followers are commendably strong on their own, and there are other practical reasons for the fanaticism.
There’s no NFL team in Portland. No major league baseball, no NHL. The Trail Blazers have had the NBA’s Pacific Northwest market to themselves since the Seattle SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and, stretching geography a bit farther, the Vancouver Grizzlies loaded up the trucks for Memphis.
It’s not quite like the 1970s, when fans filled the old Memorial Coliseum and also the Paramount Theater several miles away, thousands of them paying $5 to watch Trail Blazers games on closed-circuit telecasts on big screens.
But Game 3 was something to behold.
As McCollum said, “We ain’t trying to go home yet.”