Like clockwork, the playoffs arrive and so do the Portland Trail Blazers.
Making their eighth consecutive postseason appearance, Damian Lillard and co. have made no secret of their championship aspirations, with their roster finally healthy and raring to go.
"Like, I can't express my desire and how bad I want to win it," Lillard told The Athletic's Jason Quick.
"I want that more than anything. Not just to say I won a championship. But I want to do it in this city. I want to have a parade on Broadway and ride past El Gaucho (steakhouse). That's what I think of. Every time the playoffs is starting, I'm going into it like, 'Is this going to be the year that we shock the world or that we come up big?"'
After an up-and-down campaign, the Blazers enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 10 of their last 12 games of the season, with Lillard awarded the league's Player of the Week honours in the final week of the regular season.
A man on a mission. @dame_lillard has been named @NBA Western Conference Player of the Week! @carmax | #RipCity https://t.co/EuacdwjDnF pic.twitter.com/9wrRvDVtWq- Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) May 17, 2021
The 31-year-old is coming off another All-NBA level campaign, averaging 28.8 points, 7.5 assists, and 4.2 rebounds on 45.1 percent shooting and 39.1 percent from the 3-point line, taking 'Dame Time' to new heights in 2020-21, leading the NBA in total points scored in the clutch this season (162).
While his individual numbers continue to improve, playoff success still eludes the six-time All-Star, with the Blazers only making it beyond the second round once in his career.
Injuries have hampered them seemingly every season, including this one, with Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum missing extended stretches, but on the eve of the playoffs, they can claim a relatively clean bill of health.
We've been here before
With three first-round exits in their past four seasons, the Blazers' best playoff performance in recent years, was highlighted by a thrilling Game 7 win over the Nuggets.
While they went on to lose to the Golden State Warriors in the Conference Finals, the Blazers' signature moment came in the 2019 Western Conference Semi-Finals.
SERIES PREVIEW: Blazers square off vs. MVP favourite Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets
Lillard, who was averaging 29.8 points per game in the playoffs, found the going tough in Game 7, with the Nuggets blitzing him at every opportunity to force someone else to beat them.
That someone else was CJ McCollum.
With Lillard facing double teams, he managed a playoff-low 13 points on 3-for-18 shooting, leaving McCollum to pick up the slack and he obliged, pouring in a franchise playoff-high 37 points on 17-of-29 shooting, including some clutch buckets down the stretch.
The Blazers will ultimately go as far as Lillard can take them, but with the likes of McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, and Carmelo Anthony by his side, the Blazers have perimeter scoring to stretch the Nuggets defence.
"They're a different team now, and at that time, we were also a different team. A lot of different players, our makeup was different, but I think our ability to (win) is just as strong, if not stronger, with the team we have now," Lillard said.
"I think what we do have mentally is just knowing we're capable of going in and doing that, going in and winning a game on the road, or multiple games on the road, and also winning a big one on the road if we have to. We know that we're capable, our team is still led by me and CJ. We comfortable knowing that, that we've experienced it and we've done it before.
"But we're not coming into this series looking at it like 'Well, we did it two years ago so it can be done now.' They're different, Jokic is an even better player now. He was great then and he's a better player now. I feel like they're a deeper team now. We got our hands full but it's a good matchup for us and one that we feel like we're more than capable of winning."
In three games against the Nuggets this season, Lillard averaged 23.0 points 9.3 assists, and 4.7 rebounds on 43.9 percent shooting and 36.7 percent from the 3-point line.
The 2021 #NBAPlayoffs bracket! 🏆@KumhoTireUSA | https://t.co/9b7eMBVmgX pic.twitter.com/OfNa3L2KBb- NBA TV (@NBATV) May 22, 2021
As the No. 6 seed in the West, the Blazers will face a gauntlet of teams to try and reach the Conference Finals and beyond.
If they can get past Nikola Jokic and the injury-plagued Nuggets, who are missing Jamal Murray (knee surgery) and dealing with injuries to Will Barton (hamstring) and P.J. Dozier (adductor strain), their reward is a second-round date with either the Phoenix Suns or Los Angeles Lakers.
They lost all three meetings against the Suns this season and won the season series 2-1 against the Lakers.
It doesn't get any easier on the other side of the bracket, with the LA Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz and Memphis Grizzlies making up the other side.
The talent level in the West is at an elite level, but if the Blazers can pull off a run from the No. 6 seed, this is the season to do it, with the Western Conference as wide open as it's been since the Warriors dynasty came to a close.
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