I last wrote about Damian Lillard’s finishing ability around the rim on February 21st, a couple of days after the Portland Trail Blazers played the San Antonio Spurs. During that game, Lillard shot 9-12 from within eight feet of the basket. I took it as an encouraging sign, and now, six games later, the signs are even more encouraging.
Over the past seven games (including the Spurs game), Lillard has shot 58.3% from within eight feet (see picture below). While still not excellent, this represents a colossal leap from his season average of 46%, and a huge part of why he has shot a blistering 49.2% from the field overall during this stretch.
This is an example of the numbers telling me exactly what my eyes have been seeing – Lillard is simply finishing his layups far more effectively than he was earlier in the year. This has also dramatically boosted his scoring, as during this mini-stretch he has poured in 24.5 points a game (in a surprisingly low 34.5 minutes a game).
This naturally raises the question of why he is experiencing so much more success around the rim. While getting into the nitty-gritty is always a difficult proposition from afar, it looks to me like he has found a better balance in terms of his release point on layups. In particular, he looks more willing to hold onto the ball a little longer to find a better opening, rather than flinging the ball at the rim at the first opportunity.
I have also seen him dabble with the floater more as of late (if/when this happens consistently, it will be deadly), and overall he looks more… collected near the rim. There is far less of the aforementioned ball-flinging towards the rim as soon as a defensive player nears, which was commonplace towards the beginning of the season. In the vaguest of generalities, I would say Lillard is picking and choosing his spots more effectively.
While only seven games, the numbers during this stretch are quite astounding. If Lillard could keep up this pace for an entire season, his 24.5 points per game would lead all point guards this year, and his shooting percentage would be second best among point guards, trailing only Tony Parker. Even removing the sample size qualifier, Lillard has now quietly moved up into third place for scoring among all point guards.
In fairness, this spike in production was without a doubt boosted by LaMarcus Aldridge’s five game absence, during which Lillard became the de facto offensive focal point. While it is true that Aldridge’s absence dictated Lillard receive more opportunities to score, I would instead look at it the other way and say that Lillard faced increased defensive attention. With no All-Star power forward lurking, teams were free to key in nearly exclusively on Lillard, and he responded admirably.
In fact, he responded more than admirably – this has been some of the best basketball of Lillard’s fledgling career. Sure, he has put up large scoring nights before, but this is one of the most efficient stretches Lillard has put forth. Big scoring nights are nice, but they become worthless if those 30 points required 30 shots. In the long run, I will always choose efficiency over raw quantity, and I hope that this trend can continue for Lillard.