Having recently broken down Damian Lillard’s in-game performance with a focus on turnovers and assists, I now want to take a look at his own offensive production. Lost in my recent opining about the need for a better defense, is the fact that you still win games by scoring points. And to John Madden it, you get points by putting the rock in the hole.
Honestly. Sometimes it’s just that simple – the most beautiful would-be assist in world is meaningless if the receiving teammate doesn’t make the basket. A stellar defensive play at the other end loses some of its impact if you can’t flip that turnover into points.
So after some poking around box scores, I arrived at Damian Lillard’s outing against the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 23rd, a 103-95 win. He shot 11-17 overall, 4-8 on threes, and 2-4 at the charity stripe en route to 28 points, his seventh highest scoring total of the season. It was also only the 12th NBA game of his career.
In the most macro of senses, after watching him the entire game, I was just struck by how easy he made it look. And since dropping 28 in an NBA game is actually incredibly difficult, this is a true testament to Lillard’s skills.
He had the full arsenal on display that game – layups in traffic, threes, a ridiculously gorgeous leaner from the left hand side, and an even more ridiculous left-handed, one-handed, degree of difficulty 9.4 floater from the foul line to ice the game with 33 seconds left.
I think Mike Rice said it best right after Lillard made that shot: “Boy, Wesley Matthews [30 points] has probably been the hero, but Damian Lillard….” before trailing off into one of those stupors that every Blazers fan is familiar with. He’s right though; Matthews made most of the momentum swinging, memorable shots, yet at the end of the day, finished only with two more points than Lillard.
The meat of Lillard’s success came by eating Luke Ridnour’s soul on pick and rolls. Now, I or anyone else will never claim that Ridnour is a great defender, but as an 8 year veteran, he definitely knows a few tricks. This was no matter, as Ridnour’s (or his coaches’) decision to slip under the pick and rolls let Lillard carve up the Wolves with open jumpers.
I cannot emphasize enough how valuable this ability is in a point guard – with a point guard who is a capable jump shooter, every single pick and roll that a team runs is an impossible situation for the opponent. Every single one. Sure, they can make the “right” or the “best” decision, but this will still invariably lead to an open jump shot or an open man somewhere down the line.
I think this trait will only become more valuable in the future, as defenses are finally starting to figure out how to take full advantage of the hybrid zones that the 2001 rule change allowed (all thanks to Tom Thibodeau). They are becoming more sophisticated, and for lack of a fancier word, better. This postseason, the four last teams standing all had top ten defensive units, including the top three.
With the success of these new age defenses, having a point guard who can immediately stick a jumper off of a pick and roll as option 1a every possession becomes even more important. Offense is all about “bending” the defense in ways it doesn’t want to go, and Lillard showed his ability to do so in many games. As I said before, every pick and roll has the chance to become a no-win situation for the defense.
Despite feasting off these pick and rolls and putting up 28, Lillard was still primarily looking to pass. This was evidenced perfectly when, with a minute left in the second quarter, he passed up on a nearly wide open three pointer to get the ball to Matthews, who was even more wide open and drilled it. It was an unassuming play, and will go down in the box score as an assist for Lillard, but it illustrates much, much more.
It is one thing to pass up a contested shot in order to give the ball to a teammate who is more open. But to do what Lillard did demonstrates an advanced maturity, as well as awareness, on his part to recognize that he was trading a “very good” shot for a truly “great” shot (and all in a split second). Again, it sounds simple, but it is these little decisions, multiplied throughout the course of a season, that really determine a team’s success (or lack thereof).
The last takeaway I had from Lillard’s impressive game was his late-game composure. In the last two minutes, with the Blazers’ lead in single digits the entire time, he made two free throws and the aforementioned left-handed floater. I go back and forth on if being “clutch” even exists, and if it does, is it is overrated by the media (questions I don’t really think have answers), but at the end of the day: I think any team would prefer to have a player with a track record of success at the end of games instead of a player with no such history.
During all overtime periods this season, Lillard shot 10-13, while not missing a two-pointer. If this is the definition of clutch, I rest my case, but no matter what you want to call it, it unquestionably demonstrates a steely calmness during big moments, which hopefully the Blazers find themselves in more of in the future.