Damian Lillard was in the midst of another MVP-caliber performance on Monday, having recently shrugged off a series of nagging injuries to help turn his wayward team's season around. It probably wouldn't lead to a fifth straight road win, not with the Trail Blazers trailing the Atlanta Hawks by 15 midway through the fourth quarter.
But anything seems possible for Portland with Lillard on the floor – well, at least when he's feeling good enough physically to play near his peak. And in wake of yet another brush with legitimate injury, it's more important than ever for the Blazers to prioritize their franchise player's health as the postseason fast approaches.
The solution? Resting Lillard on Wednesday against the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, one of two remaining matchups for Portland with teams below-.500.
Lillard's latest minor malady came with about six minutes and 45 seconds left on the game clock, when Onyeka Okongwu came down on his left as Lillard rose to grab a rebound. He immediately started hobbling, barely making it past halfcourt before play was stopped and trainers rushed to the floor to attend to him.
Lillard, shockingly, stayed in the game after the incident, Terry Stotts apparently unconcerned by the risk of further injury.
Thankfully, the Hawks made sure Lillard wouldn't have to put on his cape in crunch-time to try and steal a win late, scoring the game's next five points. Stotts then waved the white flag, emptying his bench as Lillard walked gingerly to the sideline.
Making matters more fraught is that Lillard was already dealing with lingering pain in his left ankle.
"On the play I was getting ready to jump and [Okongwu] was coming down and he landed on my foot," he said after the game. "So it just kind of irritated my foot. I had already been dealing with something on that like right there, like right below my ankle on my foot. When that happened the impact, and how I was jumping up and he was coming down, it was an awkward play, and it just irritated it."
Sure enough, Lillard admitted post-game that he was still experiencing discomfort.
"It was sore after the game, during the game, but I was still able to play. I was still able to play, so it's not serious. Just unfortunate."
That's the thing about Lillard's spate of injuries this season: None of them have been "serious." Yet the cumulative effect of multiple nagging pains on different parts of his body rendered Lillard a shell of his normal self for a full month of play, from late March to late April.
For as much frustration and as many big-picture questions as the Blazers' recent struggles elicited, they might be most easily explained by Lillard's personal labors. He averaged 22.6 points per game on ugly 51.8 percent true shooting from March 21st to April 25th, a stretch that Portland went 7-12.
Included among those victories? Two without Lillard, over the rebuilt Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs.
The Blazers, still seventh in the West, need every victory they can muster to avoid the play-in tournament. They've already proven they can beat iffy opponents sans Lillard. What still remains to be seen is whether Portland can compete with the best of the West – a surely impossible task if Lillard isn't as close to 100 percent as possible.