- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 19, 2019

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Damian Lillard is just going to assume that Portland won’t have backcourt teammate CJ McCollum through the rest of the regular season so that the Trail Blazers can respond to his absence effectively.

McCollum, who is averaging more than 21 points a game for Portland, has a strained left knee. He’ll be re-evaluated next week, but at this point there’s no timetable for his return.

The injury comes at an inopportune time for the Blazers, who sit in fourth in the tight Western Conference standings with 12 games left to secure home-court advantage.

“Mentally, I don’t want him to have to rush it,” Lillard said about McCollum’s return. “When he does come back I want him to be himself and be healthy, so in my mind, we’re going to finish the regular season without him, maybe the last couple of games of the regular season. I think that’s how I should think of it, knowing that we have to have a great effort for these last 12 games, planning on not having him out there.”

While the team hasn’t collectively spoken about that possibility, McCollum said Monday night that he wasn’t going to hurry back.

“I think my goal is just to come back when I’m healthy. Obviously, you don’t want to miss games. This is the seventh game I’ve missed in four years, two of them were rest and one of them was being left off the roster,” he said. “So I don’t like to miss games, but I’ve got to do what’s best for myself from a health standpoint, and doctors will sign off when they think I’m ready.”

McCollum was injured in the third quarter of Portland’s 108-103 loss at San Antonio on Saturday night. The results of the MRI were revealed the following day.

He has started in all but one of the Blazers’ games this season, averaging 21.3 points, four rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.

Jake Layman started the first half for the Blazers on Monday night in a 106-98 win over the Indiana Pacers, while Rodney Hood started the second.

Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he imagines the rotation will be fluid in McCollum’s absence. In addition to Layman and Hood, Portland also has guard Seth Curry to turn to.

Stotts did not yet know who would start Wednesday night when the Blazers host Dallas. “It’s going to be by feel and how the game is going,” he said.

But he also expressed concern about overtaxing Lillard the rest of the way. Averaging 26.2 points per game, Portland’s All-Star guard played just over 40 minutes against the Pacers, finishing with 30 points and 15 assists.

“I think you guys all know I’ve tried to manage his minutes through this stretch,” Stotts said. “But with the race the way it is, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Lillard said he’s spoken with McCollum, emphasizing patience. The last thing Portland needs when the playoffs arrive is for McCollum to be hurting.

“I told him take your time, don’t rush,” Lillard said. “Get healthy and come back right.”

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