The rumors are true: In addition to competing in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge (also known as the Rookie-Sophomore Game) Friday night of All-Star Weekend and his first All-Star Game Sunday night, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard will defend his Taco Bell Skills Challenge title, compete in the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and finish up his Saturday night in New Orleans by being one of the six participants in the Sprite Slam Dunk contest.
“I think, because I’m capable of doing them all and I was probably going to be shooting and doing Skills, once I got invited to the All-Star Game it was obviously an opportunity to have somebody do all of them,” said Lillard. “It wasn’t something that I reached out for and I don’t think the NBA kind of wanted me to do it from the jump either. I just think that, with me being in the All-Star Game and being a second-year player, so I have to play in the Rookie/Sophomore Game and winning Skills and wanting to shoot, it only makes sense to do them all.”
Lillard will be the first player in NBA All-Star history to compete in five events, which is one of the motivating factors in his decision.
“That was a big part of it,” said Lillard. “Because that’s obviously an opportunity for me to put my name on All-Star Weekend and be the first person to do something like that. Especially on that Saturday night. Because that’s a big part of it. The dunk contest, the Three-Point Shootout, Skills, just the fact that I could be all over that, that was a big thing for me.”
Lillard is the first Trail Blazer since Rudy Fernandez at All-Star Weekend 2009 in Phoenix to be invited to compete in the Dunk Contest. It’s been a much longer drought for Blazers in the Three-Point shootout, with Cliff Robinson being the last player to represent Rip City in that even during the 1996 All-Star Weekend in San Antonio. No Trail Blazer has ever won either event.
“It’s kind of like, I’m expanding as a brand, kind of opening more eyes to who I am,” said Lillard. “Also, for the Trail Blazers. It’ll always come back to my team. I think that’s an opportunity for our team. It’ll be more focused on our team.”
Though he’s not really known as a dunker (according to NBA.com/stats, Lillard has just eight dunks this season), Lillard is excited for the challenge of competing against some of the highest-flyers in the NBA.
“Only eight dunks, that means my legs are fresh,” joked Lillard. “I can get a lot more dunking in … The contest will be short. I’ve got to go out there and show some of the tricks that I do.”
“I know I can dunk and do a lot more dunks than people probably think I can,” said Lillard. “So it’s going to be fun to have that on my side. ”
The Sprite Slam Dunk contest field includes Indiana Pacer swingman Paul George, Toronto Raptors guard Terrence Ross, Washington Wizard’s point guard John Wall, Golden State’s Harris Barnes and Sacramento Kings rookie Ben McLemore in the field. Of this year’s participants, only George and Wall are also playing in Sunday night’s All-Star Game. Ross, a Portland native, won the contest last year during All-Star Saturday night at the Toyota Center in Houston, albeit in a field featuring much lower profile players than this year’s lineup.
Also at issue is the timing of the Dunk Contest, which is the final event on All-Star Saturday. While neither the Skills Challenge nor Three-Point Contest are particularly demanding, both events do require exertion, particularly in the lower body. And that’s to say nothing of the adrenaline expended while being the focal point of an arena full of fans. Considering that Lillard’s vertical leap isn’t that of some of his opponents, he might have to find other ways to impress or figure out adjustments if he’s at all fatigued from the first two events, though he said he’s confident he’ll be up to the task.
“In the Skills you’re going through a course and making passes,” said Lillard. “It’s pretty light. It’s not heavy at all. We warmup before games like that. The Three-Point Shootout is spot-up three-pointers so it’s not like I’m going to worry about having energy. It’ll be a big crowd and I’m sure that adrenaline and just being in front of that crowd will help me be able to probably jump higher than I normally do.”
While Lillard might be a long shot to win the the dunk contest, he’ll have to be considered one of the favorites to take the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest crown.
“I wanted to shoot in the Three-Point Contest,” said Lillard, “and I think that’ll be the one that I’m most excited about.”
He’s third in the NBA this season in three-pointers made with 140 while shooting a very respectable 41 percent from beyond the arc.
His percentages from certain areas on the floor also bode well for his chances, as he shoots 42 percent from the left side center, 46 percent from the right side center and a whopping 62 percent from the left corner. On the other hand, he’s a much better shooter from three when shooting pullups (68 percent) and step backs (68 percent) than he is on regular jump shots (37 percent), which are more akin to the shots taken in the three-point shootout.
“In the game, a lot of times they don’t leave me to get many spot-up opportunities,” explained Lillard. “I shoot those shots all the time when I’m getting reps in. I think the thing that I have to get used to is getting it off a rack. Which side I like to pick it up from, obviously doing it within the time that we have.”
And unlike the dunk contest, where handicapping the competition is somewhat difficult due to the vagaries of the scoring system, the field in the three-point shootout is undeniably strong. Lillard will be up against Kyrie Irving (35 percent), who won the event last year, Washington’s Bradley Beal (41 percent), Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson (39 percent), Orlando’s Arron Afflalo (43 percent), Golden State’s Stephen Curry (40 percent), San Antonio’s Marco Belinelli (44 percent) and Minnesota’s Kevin Love (38 percent).
Lillard will defend his Taco Bell Skills Challenge title after being the first rookie to win the event last year in Houston. He bested Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Brandon Knight, Jeremy Lin and Tony Parker to come away with the trophy in his rookie season.
As for the Rookie-Sophomore Game, Lillard was “drafted” by Grant Hill’s team for the Rookie-Sophomore Game alongside the likes of Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes.
Some questioned whether Lillard was putting himself at risk of fatigue when news of Lillard participating in five events during All-Star Weekend broke prior to the official announcement, which Lillard brushed off.
“If you pay attention to it, the Skills is two rounds, maybe a minute a piece,” said Lillard. “That’s two minutes. The Three-Point Contest is probably two minutes. The dunk contest will probably take five. And then the Rookie-Sophomore Game is not like a real regular season game. So I’m not going to be out there exerting all of my energy, playing as hard as I would for the Trail Blazers. And who knows how many minutes I’ll play in the All-Star Game. So, in reality, it’s probably 45 minutes of work actually on the court. I don’t really think I’ll be tired from that.”
The BBVA Rising Stars Challenge tips off at 6 PM on Feb. 14, events on All-Star Saturday night begin at 5 PM on Feb. 15 with the weekend culminating with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16. All events will be televised on TNT.
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.”
PORTLAND — What a nice way to go into the All-Star break.
For the second time in five days, the Trail Blazers built a large third-quarter lead against the Rockets, then allowed them to make a comeback, only to make a final push to come away with the double-digit victory, this time to the tune of a 116-103 win in front of a sellout crowd of 19,393 at the Moda Center.
“I really like the way we’re playing right now,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “Defensively, we’ve been really good the last two or three weeks. Our aggressiveness has been good, our alertness has been very good and I thought we did that for most of the night tonight. It’s good to go into the break on a win streak and playing well.”
The Trail Blazers are now 27-27 overall and 16-11 at the Moda Center this season. With the win, Portland is .500 for the first time since the team was 4-4 on November 9, 2015, have won eight of their last 10 games at home and 12 of their last 15 games overall, regardless of venue. Thanks to that streak, the Trail Blazers enter the All-Star break in the seventh spot in the Western Conference standings while the Rockets, a team that started the game in seventh place, drop to ninth.
“We dug ourselves a hole to start the season, giving up some games late, but we stuck with it, we kept going, we kept working,” said Damian Lillard. “We didn’t get too high or low. We were able to close in and get to .500 going into the break. Our team has done a great job of sticking to the grind, working every day in practice and staying together. That’s gotten us to where we are now.”
After ending the first quarter tied 29-29, the Trail Blazers used a 18-3 run in the second quarter to build a 12-point lead. Portland would expand their lead to 21, only to see the Rockets cut the deficit to five with 9:31 to play in the fourth. But the Trail Blazers would close out the game by outscoring the Rockets 23-15 to come away with the 13-point victory.
Portland won Tuesday’s contest despite shooting worse percentage than the Rockets from the field and the three-point line, but making eight more free throws despite having the same number of attempts and turning 20 Rockets turnovers in to 31 points more than made up for their so-so field goal percentages.
“I like the fact that we’re doing it within the context of our defense rather than gambling and extending our defense,” said Stotts of forcing turnovers. “We’re being aggressive on the ball, we’re alert on the weak side, so I think those two things combined help create those turnovers.”
The Trail Blazers were led by Lillard, who went 9-of-22 from the field, 4-of-11 from three and 9-of-11 from the free throw line for 31 points to go along with nine assists, three rebounds and three steals in 35 minutes.
Maurice Harkless remained in the starting lineup, despite Noah Vonleh being on the active list for the first time in the last two games, and responded with his best game as a Trail Blazers with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 13 rebounds and two steals in 28 minutes.
“I liked his defense on Harden, he finished around the basket, he got rebounds, he ran the floor well,” said Stotts of Harkless. “He did a little bit of everything in a kind of understated way.”
Meyers Leonard went 6-of-9 from the field for 14 points while grabbing eight rebounds off the bench. Al-Farouq Aminu shot just under 50 percent to finish with 11 points and five rebounds and Ed Davis grabbed 13 rebounds in 21 minutes. Gerald Henderson went just 3-of-10 from the field but made up for it by going 7-of-10 from the line to finish with 13 points.
The Rockets were led by James Harden, who finished with 34 points, and Dwight Howard, who added 28 points and 13 rebounds in 35 minutes.
Next up, the Trail Blazers have more than a week off before hosting the Golden State Warriors on February 19.
“We’re playing well and hopefully when we get back we pick up where we left off,” said Stotts, “but everybody could use a break.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7 pm.