Damian Lillard was already well on his way to winning the NBA Rookie of the Year when he was selected to play in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge at the 2013 All-Star Weekend in Houston, but there were still doubts about what kind of player he would become. Sure, he was putting up great numbers, but some proposed it was a product of having no competition for minutes while being given a role that allowed for him to put up the kind of numbers necessary to win the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy by unanimous selection.
And even after a historic rookie season, there were questions of whether Lillard could really keep up the pace he set in his first season. Perhaps, seeing as how, he was 23, old by NBA sophomore standards, he had already reached his ceiling. And even if he was playing well, if the Trail Blazers were a perennial lottery team, what did it matter?
But while those doubt might have had merits before, they no longer do today. A year after being recognized as one of the best rookies via inclusion in the Rookie-Sophomore game in Houston, Lillard is now a full-fledged all-star, someone his fellow second-year players look to as a leader of their class.
“Damian Lillard, I mean, all the doubt that he had around him for being from Weber State, look what he’s doing now,” said Pistons center Andre Drummond, who was selected three spots after Lillard in the 2012 Draft. “He’s an all-star, he’s in three of the All-Star Weekend games. I told him this morning that I was real proud of him. He proved a lot of people wrong. I’m just proud to call him my friend and know that he’s doing great things.”
“I’ve seen his growth just from coming form a small school, big chip on his shoulder to obviously playing the way he did last year and taking his game and his team to another level,” said Harrison Barnes, the seventh pick in the 2012 Draft. “Portland missed the playoffs last year, one of the best teams in the West this year, he’s an all-star. I’m obviously proud of him.”
“One thing I love the most about (Lillard) is he’s humble, but at the same time, he still has a chip on his shoulder,” said Bradley Beal, who was drafted three spots ahead of Lillard by the Wizards. “He still feels like he has more to prove and he’ll never stop growing. I always try to compete against him all the time because I feel as though he’s somebody in my class who I can always compete and always try to be better than him. And he’s always trying to be better than me. It’s always good to be able to have somebody like that.”
“For (Lillard), I just think it’s about his confidence and him having that role of being a point guard on his team,” said Portland native Terrence Jones, who was selected by the Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. “He just has to play with that confidence, especially in the Western Conference where there’s so many tough point guard. I think he’s really taking that challenge.”
One of the things that impresses Lillard’s fellow second-year players the most is his rapid growth from small college prospect to a leader on an NBA team. Talent is a necessity for a young player when it comes to earning the respect of your teammates, but it also requires a certain demeneor, one which his peers would like to emulate.
“Just from last year … he’s growing into being a leader and guys are starting to follow him,” said Drummond. “Some of the stuff he’s doing, I want to be able to do, too, just how he’s a leader to his team. I want to start to grow into that as well.”
Lillard is able to recognize the respect he has among his draft class and the NBA at large while still remaining humble about it, which is one of the traits which has allowed him to be a leader despite having less than two seasons under his belt. He moved among his teammates on the 2014 Rising Stars Challenge roster with the same quiet confidence that he exhibits on the court, a confidence that comes with being on of the best young players in the NBA.
“I just feel like everybody that I was drafted with and the guys after, I feel like they respect what I’ve done,” said Lillard. “Everybody’s goal when you come in the league is to make an impact. You want to be Rookie of the Year and then you want to make all-star teams and you want to win championships and stuff like that. Just the fact that I was Rookie of the Year and now I’ve been blessed enough to become an all-star, that’s kind of the path that everybody wants to take. So I think, more than anything, they just respect it.”
But that respect and success can come with some peril. Lillard knows he won’t remain at the top of his class if he rests on his laurels, which, to some extent, makes his envious of his fellow second-year players in the exact opposite way that they’re envious of him.
“The thing about it is, it’s all coming so fast that I’ve got to keep getting better,” said Lillard. “I’ve got to be able to be consistent and remain at this level. For a guy that hasn’t been an all-star, hasn’t been the rookie of the year, they have
something to fight for, they have something to prove. Whereas, because I was Rookie of the Year and now I’m an all-star in just two seasons, I’ve got to keep finding stuff to get better at and keep finding ways to improve.”
Which he’ll need to do if he wants to add a playoff birth to his resume, not to mention a second-consecutive all-star selection.
After struggling in the first few games of their first round playoff series, the play of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Games Three, Four and Five has been one of the main reasons the Trail Blazers hold a 3-2 advantage versus the Clippers. Mason Plumlee has arguably been Portland’s most valuable player, and both Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless have delivered game-changing performances at times during the series, but the attention Lillard and McCollum draw from the Clippers’ defense has allowed for their teammates to have a chance to shine in the postseason. And despite L.A.’s defensive gameplan focusing almost exclusively on stopping Portland’s starting backcourt, Lillard and McCollum are combining to average just over 40 points a game during the 2016 playoffs.
Given that, and the fact that they even made the playoffs, let alone are a game away from winning Portland’s second playoff series in the last 15 years, TNT analyst Charles Barkley declared on last night’s edition of “Inside The NBA” that Portland’s backcourt is second only to Golden State’s, the team the Trail Blazers would face should they advance to the next round.
Damian Lillard was having one of his worst shooting nights of the season through the first three 36 minutes of Portland’s 108-98 victory versus the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Five of their first round playoff series Wednesday night at Staples Center. Though he no longer had to deal with being defended by guard Chris Paul, who is out of the series after breaking a bone in his right hand during Game Four, the Clippers continued their series-long tactic of throwing constant double teams and traps at Lillard, pestering the 6-3 point guard to go just 1-of-10 from the field through the first three quarters.
“It wasn’t even so much missing the shots that was bothering me, it was just I couldn’t get any attempts because they were so aggressive,” said Lillard. “They played a smaller lineup more often than they did the first couple games, but everything that I did, they were just as aggressive. It was obvious that they wanted me to get rid of the ball just like it was in the first four games.”
And for most of the night, the strategy worked. Despite being being without Paul and Blake Griffin, who is also out for the series with a left quad injury, the Clippers took a five-point lead into the intermission. Even when CJ McCollum got his shot going in the third quarter, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, Los Angeles was still able to go into the fourth quarter tied at 71-71.
But even though Lillard was struggling, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts decided to leave his point guard in the game to start the fourth quarter. Stotts said after the game that he changed up that rotation in order to get McCollum some extra rest, though it ultimately had another benefit.
“I usually play the third and then I sit the first couple minutes of the fourth,” said Lillard. “But I hadn’t gotten it going, and Coach Stotts knew that it was a game that we needed to win. It was a huge game for us. I think he left me out there just so I could get it going.”
Which he did. Lillard made his first attempt of the fourth quarter, a 26-foot pullup three-pointer, after just 15 seconds had elapsed in the fourth. Less than two minutes later, he made another pullup three. He stripped Clippers guard Pablo Prigioni on the ensuing possession and then converted the turnover into a fastbreak dunk, which gave Lillard eight points roughly two minutes.
“I’ve always been able to put the first three quarters behind me and come up big when my team has needed it,” said Lillard. “All my teammates throughout the game, they just kept saying, keep shooting, stay with it, stay aggressive, keep your mind right. I would have been doing that all along, but it felt good to have that encouragement and that support, especially with them trapping so high out. I had to trust the right play, hitting the guy in the middle and allowing him to make the next play to the weak side. I just had to be patient.”
But Lillard wasn’t done just yet. He left the game with just over nine minutes to play in order to get the rest that he’d usually get at the start of the quarter before returning at the 6:25 mark to presumably play the remainder of regulation.
And from there, it was Lillard Time.
He’s go on to make a 16-foot jumper and two three-pointers over the course of a two-minute span that saw the Trail Blazers extend their lead from 10 to 17 while effectively putting the game out of reach with 3:38 to play. By time Lillard subbed out with just under a minute to play, he had put up 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 shooting from three in eight and a half fourth-quarter minutes, helping Portland take a 3-2 series lead with what could be a deciding Game Six scheduled for Friday at the Moda Center.
Some players might have chosen, either subconsciously or otherwise, to defer exclusively to his teammates or find reasons not to shoot after struggling through the first three quarters like Lillard did. But that’s not how he got to where he’s at, and it certainly wouldn’t get the Trail Blazers to where they want to go. Regardless of how the game starts, Lillard is always out to finish thanks to a firm belief that the next shot, and the one after that, and the one after that, is going to find the bottom of the net.
“Regardless of how I play in the first three quarters, always in my mind I tell myself, ‘You going to come up big,’” said Lillard. “Even if it comes down to one possession, if I’ve got one point and there’s one possession left in the game, I always tell myself, ‘You’re going to come up big.’ So I was counting on that. That was it. It’s just the mindset, confidence.”
Before the first round of the Western Conference playoffs even started, many who cover the NBA couldn’t help but discuss how exciting a second round matchup between the Clippers and Warriors would be. Sure, there was still the little matter of the Portland Trail Blazers facing the Clippers in the four-five first round series, but to them, Los Angeles moving on was nothing short of an inevitability.
Though nobody bothered to tell the Trail Blazers that. Actually, they did, they just didn’t care to listen. In a season in which their quality had been doubted well before training camp, hearing their chances of advancing to the second round of the playoffs dismissed before a single second of postseason basketball had been played was nothing new. And in some ways, it was probably expected.
“The same people who said that are the same people who predicted us to be last, so that really doesn’t mean nothing to us,” said Ed Davis. “We could use it as motivation, but this late in the year, with what we’ve got at stake, we don’t really need bulletin board material. We’re motivated enough. People gonna talk man — that’s their job — but we just focus on us and we come ready to play.”
Which is what they’ve done in their last two games at the Moda Center. After starting the series by losing the first two games by an average of 20.5 points, the Trail Blazers have taken Games Three and Four at the Moda Center to tie the series at 2-2. Winning a game at Staples Center, which they’ll have to do eventually if they’re to advance to the second round, seemed all but impossible a few days ago, but with the way the Trail Blazers played in the last two games, one has to wonder if some are rethinking the notion that the Clippers would be a shoe-in to meet the Warriors come the Western Conference semifinals.
“We don’t care what they say,” said Damian Lillard. “They’re they. They didn’t expect us to make the playoffs, so why would they expect us to come in the playoffs and beat the Clippers? That’s just the way it is, they expect the Clippers to be that team that advances. We’ve heard the talk, we’ve watched TV and seen them talking about the second round series that isn’t here yet, but we stayed here. We know that they still have a series with us. I said before the series started that it’s not going to be easy, we not going to come out here and lay down and say, ‘Hey, we wasn’t supposed to make it but we did.’ We’re here to compete, we’re here to win and that hasn’t stopped.”
In fact, it’s probably picked up momentum, especially with important Clippers experiencing multiple significant injuries, including point guard and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, who suffered a fractured bone in his right hand in the third quarter of Game Three. With Paul likely out, not to mention Blake Griffin battle a quad injury and JJ Redick dealing with the effects of a bruised heel, and the series tied, the notion that Portland was a road apple on L.A.’s path to the second round seems specious.
“We don’t listen to they, block them out,” said CJ McCollum. “You’ve got to go play your game, you’ve got to control what you can control. Winning home games is big and now we’ve got a tough road game coming up. Game Five, we need to be ready to play. We can’t listen to what everybody else is saying, it’s just white noise. We’ve just got to stick together, stay as a unit and trust the process.”
Even after winning Game Three, there were some that wondered if perhaps the Trail Blazers, a team that next-to-nobody picked to make the playoffs at the start of the 2015-16 season, would be satisfied enough in avoiding a sweep. And four months ago, that might not have been an outlandish assumption, even if none of the players nor coaches would admit it. But times have changed, and so too have the Trail Blazers’ metric of what constitutes success.
“I’d say earlier in the year, we were happy just to be fighting for the playoffs,” said Davis. “This league is all about confidence. As you get better, players start to play well, you get more comfortable and coach starts to get more comfortable with the players. Our mindset changed throughout the year. Coming into this series we felt like we had a good chance to win. It’s the four-five so it’s not like it’s the one-eight where we’re these big underdogs. There’s still three games left, could be two, and we’re going to fight and give it our all. Win or lose, we’re going to fight.”
Not only is Paul likely out for the series, but Warriors point guard and reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry will miss at least the next two weeks with a MCL sprain, so either the Trail Blazers or Clippers will be taking face a shorthanded Golden State squad, at least for the first few games, in the second round. That would still be an incredibly daunting task for the Trail Blazers should they somehow manage to prove the experts wrong once again by beating the Clippers, but one thing is for sure: they won’t be happy just getting there.
“Sixteen teams make the playoffs, and I would be really surprised if any of those teams, whether the one-seed or the eight-seed, was here to say, ‘We know we’re not going to win the championship but we just want to compete,’” said Lillard. “That’s not what it is. You’re here to go after it. You never know, anything can happen. We’re going to put our best foot forward until somebody takes us out.”