In the absence of stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum over the last six games, the Portland Trail Blazers have held their own, and the play of BBE alum Ben McLemore has been a big reason why.
After a tough loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday snapped a two-game win streak, Portland (16-25) is 3-3 in their last six, clinging to the final spot in the Western Conference playoff play-in race. They probably would be well below that spot if not for the play of McLemore, who is averaging 17 points per game over the last three, since being inserted into the starting lineup, and 13.9 ppg since returning to the rotation on December 31.
The seventh-overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, McLemore signed with the Blazers in the summer as they sought to add some guard depth in the rotation with Lillard and McCollum. After being drafted by the Kings and spending four seasons in Sacramento, McLemore has bounced around to five teams in the last five seasons, including a return stay with the Kings. Last April he was cut loose by the Houston Rockets and landed with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he played in 21 games and averaged eight points per while shooting 36.8% from three.
Having a reputation as a floor spacer, McLemore has found various ways to contribute to the Blazers this season, shooting a career-best 42 percent from deep and has an effective field goal percentage of nearly 60 percent, the second highest mark of his career in that category.
His best performance of the year came on New Year’s Eve against his former team, the Lakers, who he scorched for 28 points on 10-of-16 from the field, including eight threes.
The Bradley Beal Elite alum’s breakout happened to coincide with an injury to Lillard, who hasn’t played since that game against LA and is expected to be out until March after undergoing abdominal surgery. With the McCollum already down since early December with a collapsed lung, and Lillard now out indefinitely as well, McLemore has stepped into an even bigger role.
“The next guy gotta be ready,” McLemore said. “We have guys that have played in the league for a minute and guys who are rookies that know their role and know what they need to do each and every day. We got guys that can play the right way, play together and have fun.”
He played 22 minutes off the bench in a win over the Atlanta Hawks on January 3, scoring an efficient 10 points, on 4-of-9 shooting. The Blazers lost their next two games, which prompted Coach Chauncey Billups to make a change, inserting McLemore into the starting lineup.
The result was a 15-point win over another one of Ben’s former teams, the Kings. He tallied 13 points on 5-of-12 in that one. Portland followed that up with one of the most impressive wins this season so far, beating the Brooklyn Nets 114-108 on January 10. McLemore finished the game with 20 points and five rebounds.
McLemore got going after a receiving a hand-off from Blazers center Jusus Nurkic and drained a three from the top of the key. Then, after receiving a pin down, McLemore swished a three in the right corner. Quick ball movement found an open McLemore on the left wing for his third triple of the game. And, with the game on the line, McLemore extended the Blazers lead to eight after he received a hand-off from Nurkic on the right wing and drained it.
“[We’re] just playing together, playing the right way,” Ben said. “Playing some great basketball. Playing for one another on both ends on the floor. And finding ways to get big wins like this, big win. It’s always great to get a little streak going, so gotta continue that.”
As the Blazers try to stay afloat in the West without their star players, they’ll be leaning on Ben, who continues to prove that if given the chance, he is able to make an impact as a shooter and provide a veteran leadership to younger players.