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If the NBA resumes the 2019-20 season by electing to play a handful of games with all teams just to reach 70 games to fulfill regional television deals, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard knows his next move.
"If we come back and they're just like, 'We're adding a few games to finish the regular season,' and they're throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don't have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I'm going to be with my team because I'm a part of the team. But I'm not going to be participating. I'm telling you that right now. And you can put that in there," Lillard told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday morning via phone.
Portland is 29-37 and in the No. 9 spot in the Western Conference, 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff seed. The league anticipates restarting the season at some point in late July at ESPN Wide World of Sports at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. The season has been suspended since March 11 after Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.
There are a number of options the league is considering. Will all teams participate? Will there be a postseason play-in tournament? Does the league go right into the playoffs with the current postseason qualifiers? Does it attempt a Nos. 1-16 playoff format and seed by record, regardless of conference?
"If we come back and I don't have an opportunity to make the playoffs, I will show up to work, I'll be at practice and I'll be with my team. I'm going to do all that and then I'm going to be sitting right on that bench during the games," Lillard told Yahoo Sports. "If they come back and say it's something like a tournament, play-in style, between the No. 7 and No. 12 seeds, if we're playing for playoff spots, then I think that's perfect."
Lillard is optimistic about how his team would fare if given a shot to make the postseason.
Starting center Jusuf Nurkic was scheduled to make his season debut two months ago after recovering from compound fractures of his left tibia and fibula that occurred March 25, 2019. And Zach Collins, the team's promising young starting power forward who's been sidelined since the third game of the season, was also in line for a March return after recovering from left shoulder surgery.
"It would suck not to get in the playoffs because our thing was, we had fought ourselves back into position to get a spot," Lillard told Yahoo Sports. "We had our starting center and starting power forward coming back, so we had a lot to look forward to and for a great reason. Now, they're healthy and have extra time to train and rehab while everybody's rusty. So now, they won't be coming back as the only rusty players. And if everybody's rusty, we can come in here and beat everybody. I do feel like if we do come back and our mind is right, we can beat anyone. It's going to be hard to get going with no fans, you've been off all this time and some people are just ready for summer like, ‘I haven't played in a long time and the season is basically over to me. Do I really care like I cared before?' It's going to be a lot of those factors going on and that presents a lot of room for a team to [overperform]. Like, really mess around and knock some teams off and then, 'Oh, they're in the Western Conference finals.' It's room for that with this situation. So the fact that it's possible and we wouldn't get an opportunity at that, that's weak to me. I ain't getting no younger."
A potential Los Angeles Lakers-Trail Blazers matchup likely would be the most anticipated series of the first round.
"I just feel like that would be the matchup people want to see," Lillard told Yahoo Sports. "And not to say nobody wants to see Memphis, because they're in the eighth and they've been in the eighth spot for a while. They've earned that. You can't take anything away from Memphis. They play hard, they're exciting and they've got a lot of young talent. The Lakers would have their hands full playing against them. Memphis beat the Lakers this year. Memphis would have nothing to lose. I feel like both series could be a little bit hectic for the Lakers, but I think more so us, because of the experience and where we are in our careers. Not too long ago, we played them in L.A. and obviously I had a great game and we won a close one, and in the playoffs, I'm sure they would come up with some type of game plan to not allow that to happen. But I want to compete. That's what we want."
There was a period when the hiatus began that Lillard believed the season would be canceled, so he did what health experts suggested: Nothing. That lasted about two weeks.
"I wasn't able to get on the court because I was trying to follow the rules," he told Yahoo Sports. "I was looking at the [situation] like people are out here dying and people are getting sick, so I'm not about to go sneak into somebody's gym and it hasn't been cleaned properly. I didn't want to be on that side of the situation."
The last two months, he went back to work diligently but cautiously.
His routine consisted of weight lifting, conditioning on a Peloton, steam-room therapy, running 10-second sprint intervals on an inclined treadmill, and — in between certain reps — performing core-strengthening exercises, as well as incorporating slides and lunges. The Blazers’ practice facility opened May 8, and Lillard has been going twice a day, with his first workout starting as early as 6 a.m.
He said he's prepared for the unknown.
"At first, I was like, 'It's over. I don't see us coming back.' And then I just clicked my mind back and thought for the chance that it does come back, I've gotta be ready," Lillard told Yahoo Sports. "I don't want to be that guy that when they call us back, and I'm showing up to the temporary training camp out of shape. I'll be putting myself at risk for injury and reinjure myself. I was just coming off [a groin] injury. So, I tightened up like two months ago.
"Right now, I'm just in a space where I want to come back and play. And if we start playing, I'll be ready to play. But if the league says it's only taking playoff teams, then I'm off to a head start in my summer training. I'll be pissed off because I feel like they basically stopped the season and went straight into the playoffs. We're chasing the team with the toughest schedule in the league and we're in ninth place. That would be weak, but it is what it is."
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