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Blazers guard sets that goal, and he's not the only one who thinks it could happen

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN LARIVIERE - The high-scoring backcourt of CJ McCollum (left) and Damian Lillard returns for the Trail Blazers, making Portland an up-and-coming playoff candidate in the NBA Western Conference. And Lillard's individual goal is to be the league's MVP.Ask Damian Lillard a direct question, chances are you’ll get a direct answer.

I got that Sunday when I asked the Trail Blazers’ meal ticket if he sets personal goals before a season.

“I do,” Lillard said.

His goal for this season?

“MVP,” he said. “I want to be the MVP. If we come out and do the things we’re capable of doing as a team, if we win games, that means my performance will be at the level of an MVP.”

Before you scoff at the possibility, consider that on Sunday, Golden State coach Steve Kerr was asked about Kevin Durant’s chances to claim the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award in his first season with the Warriors.

“I think K.D. is kind of like Gary Johnson — a third-party guy who is going to come in and take a few votes from Steph (Curry), takes some from LeBron (James), and then Damian Lillard wins the election,’ Kerr told reporters. “That’s my forecast.”

Terry Stotts wasn’t make any predictions, but the Portland coach endorses the idea of Lillard aspiring to become the second Trail Blazer to reign as MVP, joining Bill Walton in 1977-78.

“It’s great,” Stotts said. “Damian doesn’t run away from any challenge. He sets the bar high for himself. He sets the bar high for his team and teammates. That’s the best way to succeed and have achievement, to have those expectations.”

Lillard, 26, has earned a national reputation as he enters his fifth NBA season. The Blazers’ two-time All-Star point guard did not make the All-Star Game in 2015-16, but by the end of the season he had won over the media, gaining second-team All-NBA honors for the first time.

Lillard finished eighth in the MVP balloting, joining James, Curry and Russell Westbrook as the only players to place among the league’s top 10 in scoring (25.1 points per game, sixth) and assists (6.8, eighth) during the regular season.

An MVP candidacy works only if a team complies with a deep run in the playoffs. That’s precisely what Lillard is looking for this season.

“I want to get to the Western Conference finals and give ourselves a chance to get to the (NBA) finals,” he said last week. “I think it’s possible.”

Forward Meyers Leonard was unaware of Lillard’s proclamation, but was glad to hear it.

“That’s extremely encouraging,” Leonard said. “'Dame' not only does it by what he says, but how he works. Sweat equity, before and after practice. The way he leads during games, in the locker room., and how he carries himself. There’s some trickle-down effect among the rest of us.”

The Blazers, who begin the 2016-17 regular season Tuesday night at home against Utah, may have conference finals capabilities. Except for reserve guard Gerald Henderson, the team retained all the key components of a group that surprised by winning 44 games and finishing fourth in the Western Conference last season. Portland then beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round before being eliminated by the Warriors.

And Portland has added free-agent Evan Turner, who finished fifth in the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award balloting while with Boston a year ago.

The Blazers’ collective mind-set is much different than it was before last season, when few experts expected them to even make the playoffs.

“Last year, there was a lot more … I don’t know, uncertainty, I guess,” Lillard said. “A little bit more nerves. … just kind of wondering how the season would go. We weren’t as comfortable as we are right now. We didn’t have the same understanding of each other the way we do now. We really believe in each other now.”

Oddsmakers figured the Blazers would struggle to win 30 games. The players weren’t sure what to think, either.

“We didn’t have many expectations,” reserve forward Ed Davis said. “Then as the season went on, we started thinking, ‘Maybe we can make the playoffs.’ Then it was, ‘Maybe we can get the fifth seed.’ Then it was, ‘Maybe we can get homecourt advantage.’ Then, ‘Maybe we can win a playoff series.’”

Said Stotts: “We were confident, but it was an unknown. We were betting on ourselves, that we were going to get better. This year, with so many guys coming back and having played together for a year, it’s more of a known quantity. The confidence is higher.”

Pundits have recognized the strides the Blazers have made. So have opponents, which could make the path to the postseason a bit more difficult.

“We just have to be sharp,” Lillard said. “We’re not going to catch anybody off guard. Our minds have to be right every night. We have to come correct.

“Last year, when people didn’t say much or care much about us, we were aware of it, but we didn’t care. We just did what we had to do. It has to be the same this year. Whether they’re on our side or not, we have to do our thing and not put too much stock in what they say or think.”

The immediate goal will be to win enough regular-season games to gain homecourt advantage, and to be in peak form entering the postseason.

“Nobody really worries about expectations, to tell you the truth,” Turner said. “Nobody’s walking through the locker rooms saying, ‘We need to do this, we need to do that.’ We know we need to be at our best come April and May.”

• In order to advance deep into the playoffs, the Blazers must improve their defense. Last regular season, they were tied for 20th with Houston in defensive efficiency, 16th in opponents’ field-goal percentage (.453) and tied for 25th in opponents’ 3-point percentage (.371). Those numbers were by far the worst of any team that won a playoff series.

“With this team, we’re going to make the playoffs,” Davis said. “We’re going to have a good year. But to make that next step, we have to be a top-10, top-15 defensive team.”

Stotts said familiarity will breed improvement.

“We’ll be better defensively by virtue of our experience,” said Stotts, who begins his fifth year at the Blazer helm. “After Year 2, we got better in Year 3 with the same people. We went from 16th or 17th to top 10. That’s a goal this year. In addition to the personnel, it’s experience and understanding of what each guy is doing.”

• Few teams will have the kind of depth the Blazers possess.

“Probably the deepest team I’ve been on,” said Davis, in his seventh NBA season. “That’s a plus for the coaching staff, and a buffer against injuries. A lot of hungry guys who can play on this team.”

Lillard and CJ McCollum will start in the backcourt, flanked by Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee on the front line. The rotation to start the season is expected to include Turner, Leonard and swingman Allen Crabbe, plus perhaps forward Noah Vonlee and/or point guard Shabazz Napier.

“It’ll be nine or 10 guys (in the rotation),” Stotts said. “It will probably depend on how the game is going and how the matchups are. Last year, when Gerald and Moe were both healthy, I stayed with 10 and that didn’t really work out that well. We turned the corner when we cut it to nine. But I want to be open about the possibilities.”

• A key factor will be the performance of McCollum, who came into his own in his first season as a starter last season, averaging 20.8 points while earning the league’s Most Improved Player Award. Last season will benefit him greatly, McCollum believes.

“After going through a full season as a starter, you get a better understanding of the offense, the concepts, the flow, how to execute, what the coaches are looking for,” he said. “From a knowledge standpoint, better understanding the game, how to call certain sets to manipulate the defense a certain way — that all comes from game experience. You can’t get a lot of that stuff from watching.”

McCollum said a year playing alongside Lillard will allow the duo to better play off each other.

“I’m able to read him better now,” McCollum said. “I know what kind of plays he likes, situational spacing, when to call for the ball, when to get him off the ball and let him run some 2 (guard).”

The 6-4 McCollum said he is in the best shape of his career. He has pared a few pounds from a body that carried 190 pounds a year ago, all the better to help the foot that bothered him early in his pro career to handle the pounding of a long season.

“I’m leaner than I was, but I’m stronger,” he said. “It’s about keeping less pressure on the foot and being able to withstand those miles and those minutes.”

• The Blazers enter the regular season in good health. Only free-agent acquisition Festus Ezeli, who underwent a procedure on his knee in August and is still in the rehabilitation stage, will not be available. Leonard, coming back after April shoulder surgery, sat out two preseason games with back issues.

“I hadn’t played fullcourt basketball for so long,” Leonard said. “I did two practices and two games within a week, and my back was probably saying, ‘Hey now.’ The back feels much better, and I’ve had zero issues with the shoulder.

“I wish I could have played in all the preseason games. There is going to be some rust to shake off. I feel pretty good. It’s just going to take a little time to get in really good shape and get the flow of the game back.”

• Utah comes to Portland with a decidedly short cast. Its best player, forward Gordon Hayward, will miss the game with a left ring finger that was broken three weeks ago. Reserve guard Alec Burks, and probably power forward Derrick Favors, will miss the game with knee issues.

That means the Jazz will dig into their veteran offseason acquisitions — point guard George Hill, swingman Joe Johnson and power forward Boris Diaw — for major contributions. All three are likely to start Tuesday night along with shooting guard Rodney Hood and center Rudy Gobert.

“They’re a little shorthanded, but we know we’ll get their best effort,” Lillard said. “We’re all looking forward to this one. When you get to open up at home — we’re going to have a lot of energy. You know the crowd’s going to be excited. We’re excited to get our first real one in.”

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