LAS VEGAS — Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard celebrated his 31st birthday on Thursday at the Entertainment Capital of the World, a locale he’s settled at for over a week for Team USA training camp in preparation for the Olympics in Tokyo.
With each passing year, Lillard puts in the extra work to refine his game and his body composition to ensure that he’s giving the franchise the best version of himself in hopes of making a legitimate championship run.
His appetite to see that come into fruition is insatiable, and that’s why his name has been cemented in trade rumors for the last month.
Lillard sat down with Yahoo Sports for an exclusive interview centered on Team USA’s early struggles and on where he currently stands with the Trail Blazers.
Chris Haynes: How have you and your teammates dealt with the criticisms Team USA is receiving for dropping two exhibition games?
Damian Lillard: I haven’t dealt with the criticism, personally. We are more critical of ourselves naturally. We know we represent Team USA, and there is a reputation where we’ve always gotten the job done. To come out in those first two games the way we did, it was different. People were like, ‘What's going on?’ But it's pretty much a brand new team from the last few Olympics. This is a lot of guys’ first time and we’re younger. It takes time to transition being a team. Also, the rest of the world is getting better. You look at these other rosters and there's five, six, seven dudes in the NBA. They’ve been playing together for a long time. They wanted to beat the United States for a long time, and for us, we're just becoming a team and we’re still working on becoming a team instead of a group of talented individuals.
CH: You said those other countries have caught up. Is it fair to think the days of those huge blowout games Team USA used to unleash on a regular basis are over?
DL: Our attitude has to be that we're going there to win a gold medal, but we can't go in there with the attitude that it's just going to happen. Because everybody has gotten better, we must go over there knowing we can be beat. We’re known for winning gold medals, and we should be going over there wearing that like a badge of honor. We’re here to win it all, but it's not just going to happen. We must earn it. It's that simple. We’re just trying to keep making strides in the right direction. Obviously, we want to win and we're trying to win, but I think the focus has been more on us just getting better and becoming a team more and more. So, when we get over there, we know what we need to do.
CH: Have you garnered any extra motivation for next season from playing with the elite of the elite?
DL: I wouldn’t say this is extra motivation. I think it’s just something you want to embrace because it's not normal for us to be playing together. We all play on different teams and when we do come together, it’s in an All-Star Game and it's kind of a meaningless game. This is really the only opportunity where you have a team with nearly all the best players playing for something meaningful. It’s a wonderful feeling. So, I’m just embracing it and throwing myself into it and making the most of it.
CH: I have to ask you about your situation with the Trail Blazers. With all you’ve done for the franchise on and off the court, do you feel like that same level of commitment has been reciprocated as far as putting you in position to get your first title?
DL: To make it to the NBA, I had to give it everything I had. I was going to do what needed to be done to win games. I didn’t come into the league worrying about what others were doing in the organization. I didn’t come in with that type of mentality. But I've been active in probably 95% of the games in my career. I’ve played through injuries, and I’ve been a part of two rebuilds. I feel like I’ve experienced everything with the Trail Blazers, and I’ve worn that jersey as a badge of honor and with a lot of pride and care. I never felt like my job was to go in and critique what other people were doing in the organization. My job was to make sure the team is functioning and trying to lead them to the best results. I’ve always assumed everybody’s mentality was the same. Even when I'm playing well and we come up short at the end of the season, I go home and the first thing I do is look in the mirror and tell myself we didn't win a championship. Or if I didn't play as well as I should have, I’ve had to look in the mirror and tell myself that my performance was unacceptable and I have to do better. And then you go do better.
I think that's the stage we're at as a team where we all, not just me, not just my teammates, not just our new coaching staff, the front office, everybody in this organization must look in the mirror because we’ve constantly come up short. We have to look in the mirror and say I have to be better because whatever it is we’re doing is not working and it’s not giving us the shot to compete on the level that we want to compete on.
CH: Having known you for years and your position, why is this current juncture such a pivotal moment for you?
DL: There are few reasons: One being I'm not getting any younger. Our environment has always been great. We’re not losing a lot, but we were eliminated by a shorthanded Denver team that I felt we should have beat. I just walked away from that really disappointed. I was like, ‘Man, this just isn't going to work.’ We're not winning the championship, but we’ve got a successful organization. We're not a franchise that’s just out here losing every year and getting divided. We have positive seasons; we just don't end up with a championship. So I feel like at this point, I basically made the decision that if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be where you've always been. Just like I hold myself accountable for a bad performance or hold myself accountable to make sure that I work my ass off when I’m training, I must be accountable for saying what needs to be said even if it's not popular. And that just comes with age. When I was younger, I felt like maybe I'll be out of place, but I feel like I've earned the right to say we must do better. We must do better if we want to win on that level.
CH: Have you been watching much of the NBA Finals?
DL: I haven’t really watched the games except for a quarter here and there. I literally watched the last eight minutes the other night ... It’s like you almost get jealous. Like, damn, I’m enjoying my experience with Team USA, but I'd rather be one of the teams still playing.
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