Two seasons into his professional career, there have been few situations that felt too big for Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. Whether it’s back-to-back game-winners in the regular season, competing in all five events at All-Star Weekend or simultaneously elating an entire fan base while crushing the dreams of another with a playoff series-clinching shot, Lillard has shown that shrinking away from a challenge apparently isn’t in his DNA.
Which is why Lillard felt no nerves competing against a collection of the best players in the world at the first practice USA Basketball practice on the campus on UNLV in Las Vegas.
“”I’m here for a reason,” said Lillard. “If they didn’t feel like I belonged here, they didn’t have to bring me here, cause a lot of people aren’t here. So I don’t even think about that. Not even once.”
Even with players like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant sitting out the 2014 FIBA World Cup, there’s no basketball team more difficult in the world to make than USA Basketball Men’s National Team. Given that, one can imagine that the pressure to perform against a preliminary roster comprised of players who would be shoe-ins to make any other country’s national team would be intense, but that’s just not the case for Lillard. Being afraid of competition, even at it’s highest levels, is foreign to Lillard as the teams he hopes to be playing against in Spain come September.
“When you’re on the court with (Kevin Durant), James Harden, Derrick Rose, I know what they can do, playing against them and watching them,” said Lillard. “So I don’t need to go out there and do all this extra stuff when I can make the game simple for myself. I know what I’m capable of. I know I can knock down shots, I can get to the rim, I can compete here. I’m here for a reason. No nerves at all. I’m just playing.”
Though as he notes, Lillard’s not playing the same role he does in Portland as one half of a potent inside-outside duo with power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. That can be difficult for some players, especially when trying to make the final cut by impressing the coaching staff, but when you remove the fear of not making the team from the equation, it becomes easier to settle into a complimentary role.
“I still played, I was myself,” said Lillard. “Obviously I would be more aggressive when I’m playing for (the Trail Blazers). But everybody here can be more aggressive and do more. I think it’s going to take getting in the lane and making that extra pass, getting somebody an easier shot, selling myself to space away from the ball instead of going toward the ball. And I’m just trying to get myself comfortable doing that, instead of just trying to come out here and say, ‘I can do this and I can do that.’ That’s what I’m going to do during the season. But here, I think I need to do more showing what I can do to help this team.”
“These guys are playing 35 to 40 minutes, they’re the dominate players on their teams,” said USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Here, you don’t get as many shots, you don’t get as many minutes, so they can play defense harder, they don’t need to pace themselves.”
Lillard came off the bench for Rose during a scrimmage Monday afternoon and looked as though he was taking Krzyzewski’s message to heart as he hounded Kyrie Irving and John Wall on defense while infrequently looking for his own shot on offense. And while he might not have had any highlight plays, he showed that the role he’d ultimately have on Team USA is one he’s more than willing to fill.
“You’ll see guys who don’t have a reputation for playing hard defense picking up full-court,” said Lillard, possibly using himself as an example. “You’ll see guys doing stuff that basically shows you that there are going sell themselves for the greater good of the team. And that’s what it’s all about. You see the passion that they play with and that’s the difference. That’s what it takes to be able to a part of something like (USA Basketball).”
How Lillard comports himself during the remaining practices and the scrimmage on Friday evening will go a long way to deciding whether he’ll be spending September in Europe as a part of Team USA or in Portland preparing for the 2014-15 NBA season. The competition is stiff, but his odds of making the World Cup roster are in no way the longest he’s faced in his life, let alone as a basketball player. He may fail, as all of us eventually do, but he’s not going to fear the challenge nor come away from the experience empty-handed.
“It’s one of those things where anybody could make (the World Cup roster) and anybody could not make it,” said Lillard. “You can’t be mad if you don’t make it. But if you do make it, you can be really thankful because it can go either way. Everybody’s worthy. Everybody can bring something special to the team. So I think we’ve just got to take advantage of this week, just really work hard, go against each other and try to make each other better. At the end of the week, they’ll decide what they want to decide. But I think we should just take advantage of having this company for a whole week.”
Neither Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard nor Cavaliers power forward Kevin Love were selected to participate in the 2016 NBA All-Star Game taking place Sunday night in Toronto. But instead of spending their time sulking, the point guard who plays in Portland and the power forward who grew up just down the road in Lake Oswego, aka The Brothers Hooper, hit the studio to collaborate on the new “Droppin’ Dimes” track for State Farm…
It’s not nearly as serious as Lillard’s “Bigger Than Us” video, but every discography needs some good party tracks.
Howdy kind listeners. Before we all take some much needed respite before the start of a brutal March schedule, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net/TrailBlazers.com, hit the studios at the Moda Center to record an All-Star break edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this week’s episode we marvel at the Trail Blazers being 27-27, good for seventh in the Western Conference, and how that’s going to cost Freeman some money/beer at some point, the emergence of Maurice Harkless since joining the starting lineup, Portland rising while other teams in their general range struggle, discuss how we’ll be spending our respective All-Star breaks and answer a host of questions pertaining to the upcoming trade deadline, Gerald Henderson’s tenure in Portland, Damian Lillard passing Brandon Roy and a bunch of other stuff that I’ve already since forgotten. As I noted during the show, my brain is already on vacation.
You can find the Rip City Report on Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher. And consider using a small portion of the time you would usually spend watching the Blazers to give us a review on iTunes! You can be as mean as you want!
Though they were never teammates, Damian Lillard and Brandon Roy manage to talk from time to time. Their relationship started not long after Lillard was selected by the Trail Blazers with the sixth overall pick of the 2012 Draft and they’ve stayed in contact ever since over the years. During those somewhat regular chats, the current and former faces of the Trail Blazers’ franchise sometimes discuss the responsibility that comes with that title, especially at a relatively young age, and what could have been if the 6-3 guard out of Weber State and the now-retired 6-6 guard out of Washington ever had the opportunity to play alongside each other in Rip City.
And the next time they talk, they’ll have something new to discuss. With his 31-point performance in Tuesday night’s victory versus the Rockets, Lillard passed Roy for 15th in franchise history in points. Lillard now has 6,119 in less than four seasons in Portland, surpassing the the 6,107 points that Roy scored in five seasons before knee injuries ended his career far too prematurely.
“I mean, that’s an honor,” said Lillard of passing Roy. “Just to be moving up on that list period, but I mean, if Brandon Roy got to play as long as he should have played and people would have liked to have seen him play, I probably would never pass him, so it’s a great accomplishment. It’s an honor you know, but the more important thing is just continuing to be myself and continuing to win games.”
Which Lillard has done an excellent job of his season. He’s the only player to rank in the top-6 in both scoring (24.3 points per game) and assists (7.3 assist per game) this season and has led the Trail Blazers to a 27-27 record this season, vastly outperforming preseason expectations, despite being the only holdover from last season’s starting five.
Though he’s had plenty of help this season from the likes of CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis, Lillard’s performance through 54 games is the the primary reason that the Trail Blazers enter the All-Star break in seventh place in the Western Conference. Roy, a three-time All-Star, was a fantastic player in his own right, a player whose peak performances are still the stuff of legend in Portland, but even he never carried the load that Lillard has this season. And of course, Lillard has already helped the Trail Blazer win a playoff series in his first four season in Portland, something Roy never accomplished.
“He’s been pretty good in a short amount of time,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts of Lillard. “I mean, Brandon Roy, I wasn’t here for that, but I know what an imprint he made on the city and the franchise and how important he was to the Blazers. The fact that Damian has passed him this early in his career really says something because I know how good Brandon was. I know his career was cut short but everybody here holds him in high regard.”
Assuming Lillard experiences relatively good health — the seven games he missed this season due to plantar fascitiis are the only games he’s missed in his profession career thus far — there’s no reason to think that he won’t replace Roy as the best guard to play in Portland since Clyde Drexler, if he hasn’t taken that mantel already. But Roy can take some satisfaction in knowing that at least some of the success Lillard has had as a Trail Blazer was accomplished in part due to emulating the example he set on and off the court.
“When (Roy) got to Portland, a lot of the stuff he did, it brought excitement,” said Lillard. “I think the city really embraced him, they liked who he was as a person along with what he did as a player, obviously. I think because I kind of came and did the same thing, did some of the same things he did, I think he respects that… He was well respected, people appreciated the kind of person he was and he got it done on the floor. I think I can say the same for myself.”