Damian Lillard received some well-deserved praise for his defense on Trey Burke in last night’s preseason game against the Utah Jazz. Burke, a celebrated scorer and efficient shooter, was held to just 7 points on 3-10 shooting, while Lillard scored 23 points on 8-15. The difference was staggering, but should certainly be taken with a grain of salt.
Trey Burke, while an exceptional prospect, is a rookie. In fact, he’s an undersized one. He stands (shorter than myself even) at 6’0”—not at all impressive by NBA standards. Because of this, he has a strong tendency to settle for ill-advised floaters or heavily contested shots on the drive. His combination of inexperience, bad habits, and short stature gave Lillard quite an advantage defensively.
I can’t whole-heartedly commend Lillard for his lockdown defense given the competition. Chris Paul was able to score 15 points on him in 24 minutes earlier this week. Paul, like Burke, is 6’0” tall, but is conversely one of the best PGs in the league. His offensive handiwork left Lillard with five fouls and few stops to show for his effort.
In the very next game, Goran Dragic of the Phoenix Suns made Damian’s defense seem even more laughable, scoring 19 points in 18 minutes (7-9). One would have hoped that his sub-par defense on Chris Paul could have been chalked up to Paul’s caliber of play, but there is no reason that an “improved” Lillard should be burned even worse by Goran Dragic. Lillard finished again with five fouls.
However, he has improved. Last night was the first time this preseason that he was able to consistently navigate the pick and roll. This allowed him to stay on Burke and stifle him the way he did. I don’t doubt that Damian Lillard will continue to get better, but his defensive advancement will come in baby steps. Shutting down a rookie in preseason gives less indication of his standing than getting trounced by veterans.
Still, Damian Lillard is nothing if not a hard worker. He’s tired of hearing these critiques, but has the power to silence them with time and dedication. I am just unwilling to fawn over his new defense until I see more of it. The 3 game sample size is too small to give him the benefit of the doubt; especially when his best defensive performance is the outlier.