Through 12 games, Lillard is averaging 20.2 pts, 6.0 assts and 3.0 rebs per game, while shooting 47.3% from field (40.5% from 3-pt range).
— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) November 24, 2012
During Friday’s rousing Blazer 103-95 victory over the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves, I joked on Twitter and with Ben Golliver from Blazersedge (and a lot of other stuff) that maybe Damian Lillard should think about shooting MORE often. This was prior to halftime, and at a point in the game where nobody in a Blazer uniform could make a shot and Damian couldn’t miss.
When I asked Lillard after the game if he ever thought about shooting more, especially when he’s red hot, he said that he tries to do whatever works the best for the team within the flow of the game and the offense. It’s both the right answer and the right attitude to have when asked a silly question about shooting more, but here’s the thing, I actually think Damian Lillard should shoot the ball more often.
There are a few things we know for certain 12 games into what could be one of the more interesting Blazer seasons in the last few years. First, Portland’s bench is pretty miserable. And second, this team is looking really hard for somebody who can come up huge every single night. Most Blazer fans know that Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum can be very inconsistent. Friday night, Wesley was as good as you’ll ever see him. His 30 points, coming as they did on 12-of-17 from the floor and 5-of-6 from three, were so efficient that somebody who knows nothing about efficiency metrics can say they were efficient and know he’s not wrong. But 30 points on 17 field goal attempts has never been the norm for Wesley. Let me rephrase that. Thirty points on 17 shots has yet to become de rigueur for Wesley. If he can get close to that mark two or three times out of every 10 games, and then not fall way off in the nights he misses it, he could be Portland’s go-to guy.
The same goes for Nicolas Batum. On Friday Nic was every bit as off as Wesley was on. In 36 minutes of court time Batum scored nine points (the only starter not in double digits) hit three of his 10 field goal attempts, and missed all but one of his seven three point shots. Save for a swooping, Ice Man-esque finger roll and a deep ball that brought the home crowd to a fever pitch during Portland’s decision second-half run, Nic’s night offensively was nothing to write home about. His defense, however, was pretty great and he collected five assists, but this team needs offense, and nine points from Nic isn’t going to cut. But like I said about Wesley, the knock on Nic is his inconsistency. His bad night Friday has been compensated for by good nights at other times, specifically two nights (at home in a loss to San Antonio and at home again in a win against Houston) where he netted 35 points. And just like Wes, should the consistency get there, Nicolas could be Portland’s main guy.
So maybe at this point you’re asking yourself why I’m talking about Portland looking for a main guy. Ask this team who their focal point is, who they rally around, who they want to have the ball with the game on the line. If you said Damian Lillard, then you’re wrong. This team, to a man, has maintained that LaMarcus Aldridge is the go to guy. He’s the All-Star, he’s the max money (or closest to max money) guy, he is the face of the franchise. Well folks, I’m here to tell you that that might have to change.
LaMarcus hasn’t been terrible this season, but he’s been far from great. Wednesday was a fine example of that. In Phoenix LA shot 5-of-15 from the floor, and got outplayed by every single big man on the Suns’ roster. Friday was no better. LA hit his first shot, but after that he looked barely engaged. He got in a scrap with Kevin Love that cost him a personal foul and a technical foul. He got worked on defense so badly prior to the double personal double technical with Love that from the 4:19 mark to the 3:46 mark in the 2nd quarter LaMarcus went from zero personal fouls to three. And although (not to over quote The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman) his chest bumping, word exchanging, and bench sitting did give him a little boost in the second half, Portland’s All-Star finished with 13 points on 13 field goal attempts while shooting a miserable 1-of-3 from the free throw line.
This team still belongs to LaMarcus Aldridge, but if he wants it to stay that way for long he needs to figure out where his head is, pull it out, and start playing like one of the top power forwards in the Western Conference. I don’t know what’s gotten into LaMarcus. I don’t think it’s a problem with his game. In the second half, once he decided to get to the basket, he showed that he has the skill to get by a guy like Nikola Pekovic. His jump shot is still falling, although he does seem to have gone back to the old days when all he wants to do is shoot. My hope is that the issues with LA’s slow start have more to do with it still being very early in the season and with him having to adjust to a few different cogs in the system. If that’s the case, the ship will right itself, and 10 games further down the road he’ll be back to averaging 20 points a night as he has for the last three seasons.
My concern, though, is that the problem with LaMarcus may run deeper than it being early in the season and he’s adjusting. LA has always been a tough nut to crack. It’s possible that he’s not happy with the team around him, it’s possible that now that he’s really in the spotlight (no Brandon Roy or Greg Oden injury issues/media circus to contend with) he’s finding it more difficult to lead, it’s possible that he resents the attention Damian Lillard is getting. I sincerely doubt that LaMarcus has any problem with Damian Lillard, and if that is the case (which I’ll say again just to be clear I’m pretty sure it isn’t) this franchise could be in real trouble.
Whatever it is that’s bothering LaMarcus, though, brings me back to my point about Lillard needing to skip a few steps and anoint himself the top guy on offense. So far he’s proven to be able to consistently score. If it’s his three some nights, it’s his three. If it’s slashing to the hoop some nights, then it’s that. Friday we got a chance to see Damian shooting short jumpers in the lane, something he hasn’t done too much this season.
It was fitting that Damian sealed the win with a floater from just below the free throw line. It was extra fitting that once again he found himself with the ball over half court with less than 24 seconds to play and Minnesota conceding by way of not fouling. Friday, Damian dribbled out the clock. We know his learning curve is steep. Now we know he got the message about how to finish games without ruffling the feathers of the NBA’s old salts. His next task will be embracing the fact that if this team wants to win on a consistent basis or anything resembling a consistent basis, it will be partly and sometimes mostly his doing.
The Blazers start their first long road trip tonight with an overnight flight to Brooklyn. They kick off a 13-day seven-game roadie that will take us all the way through the start of December Sunday afternoon at the Barclay Center against the Nets.
Couple of quick things:
- Meyers Leonard had a rough night. In less than 10 minutes (9:20 to be exact) he scored two points, collected three personal fouls and technical for karate chopping Andrei Kirilenko on a drive to the hoop after the whistle, and didn’t manage to claim a single rebound. Leonard has already been singled out for struggling defensively. Friday was no cake walk, as coach Terry Stotts said in his post game, Pekovic is a big dude, but Portland clearly played better with J.J. Hickson and Jared Jeffries on the floor. Hickson and Jeffries are not long-term solutions for the Blazers’ front court. Meyers Leonard probably is. He needs to get better so he doesn’t continue to lose playing time. Friday, Jared Jeffries logged nearly 10 more minutes than Meyers. Not a good sign.
- Friday was Rivalry Night since the Civil War game is Saturday afternoon. Gary Payton was on hand for the game decked head to toe (or at least head and chest) in Oregon State Beaver gear. For those that don’t know, The Glove attended OSU. Following the game, I asked Damian if he’d talked to GP. He said that they’d said hello at halftime. When I asked him if they know each other since they’re both from Oakland, Damian said that have been building a relationship over the course of the last seven months and that he’d met GP as a kid. Right now, the only knock against Damian is that he’s not yet a great defender. Friday his principal defensive assignment was Luke Ridnour. Damian kept Ridnour out of the paint, but he did go under a lot of screens and in the process gave up a few uncontested jumpers. Ridnour is a shooter, and he made Damian pay for letting him shoot on more than one occasion. I don’t know if GP is the kind of ex-player that teaches younger players stuff (you know like Hakeem Olajuwon and the hundred or so other ex-NBA guys who make up the rolls of the league’s assistant coaches) but if he wanted to school a fellow Oakland-born point guard on how to be a better defender I don’t think anybody would complain.
- Victor Claver was in active Friday. That’s not news, but I did walk by him on the way to the locker room post game and see him having a casual chat with Ricky Rubio. Victor tweeted this after the game. Rubio is one of a host of Timberwolves on the mend at the moment. As has been said, if a few of those guys could come back and be 100% before the end of the season, this could be a Playoff-level team. One of the guys out for Minnesota right now is Chase Budinger. Portland fans, though not wishing ill on any other specific team, player, or fan base, should be happy Budinger was out, that guy kills the Blazers on the regular.
- Number two overall pick Derrick Williams finished the night with a DNP-CD. Williams was one of the names floated in a potential Nicolas Batum sign-and-trade. I like want Williams brings to the table, and I’m a bit shocked that when Timberwolves’ head coach said post game that somebody might get left out when Kevin Love returned he meant a guy taken so high in the Draft and thought to be a pillar of the franchise a season ago.
- Rowdy Roddy Piper was also in the RG Friday. It was unclear whether or not he’s a Ducks for or Beavers fan.
- Speaking of Ducks and Beavers, the original Pac-10 was in the house, but that’s only because of the Timberwolves roster. Representing the Pac-10 for Minny is Luke Ridnour (Oregon), Macolm Lee (UCLA), Derrick Williams (Arizona), and Kevin Love (UCLA). Add to that Brandon Roy (Washington) and Chase Budinger (Arizona) and you’ve got yourself a veritable who’s-who of the conference all on one team.