Damian Lillard's Heroics Help Blazers Cement Status Among Western Elite

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Damian Lillard's Heroics Help Blazers Cement Status Among Western Elite
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

There is a prevailing wisdom among some fans that the Portland Trail Blazers are a fluke. That once the dust settles on their torrid start, the big boys of the Western Conference will cast the youngsters aside, tousle their hair and ask them politely to go sit at the kids' table—the "real" adults have some June travel arrangements to discuss.

That may wind up being the case. But don't expect Damian Lillard to let it happen without a fight. Lillard knocked down a game-winning 30-foot jumper with 0.4 seconds remaining on Tuesday night, as the Blazers held on for a 119-116 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Taking the inbounds pass with 7.1 seconds remaining, there was never any question as to who was taking the last shot. Lillard dribbled near the half-court line until about the three-second mark before creating just enough separation from Alonzo Gee to pull up with his left foot still on the stylized C at midcourt. 

"That was cold-blooded," Cleveland guard Dion Waiters said, per ESPN. "We knew Lillard was getting the ball. That was a big-time shot."

It was Lillard's second game-winner in as many nights and fourth already of this young season. In just his second NBA season, Lillard is on the precipice of establishing a reputation as a stone-cold killer—the rare type of player who you're OK with playing "hero ball" in the waning seconds.

The Blazers are now 22-4 on the season, a full game ahead of Indiana and San Antonio for the NBA's best record. They're the league's most surprising team that doesn't have close proximity to cacti.

Portland's best player might be LaMarcus Aldridge, but Lillard is its franchise star. The team has taken on his personality, a take-no-prisoners offensive juggernaut that guns from the outside and wears opponents out with its torrid pace. Lillard is often the leader of that charge, an electric ball-handler whose lightning-quick first step allows him to barrel into the lane or create a step of separation to get off his jumper.

On any night, Lillard can drop 30 points—as he did on Tuesday, when he finished with season-highs in points (36) and assists (10).

"He's more capable of dribble-driving by you and finishing," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said, highlighting the struggle coaches go through game-planning for Lillard. "Their last game he drove by somebody and shot a pull-up. So you pick your poison."

For all of the plaudits foisted upon Lillard with this start, though, he's still not without glaring flaws. He's hanging right around the NBA's "Mendoza Line" for shooters (39.9 percent), a rate that's only acceptable because Lillard is developing into one of the league's best from beyond the arc.

While Brown cites his game-winning layup against Detroit on Sunday, the Cavaliers may have been better off letting Lillard drive to the basket. Among guards who have taken at least 40 shots inside the restricted area, only Ricky Rubio ranks worse than Lillard's 40.2 percent rate. He also hits only 24.4 percent from the awkward non-restricted paint area—also known as "floater territory."

Rather than letting plays develop, Lillard too often finds himself careering into the lane and chucking up off-kilter layups rather than letting a play develop. His propensity for going right into jumper mode out of the initial pick-and-roll also creates some of the efficiency problems. Once Lillard starts figuring little hesitation moves and when to pick his spots, he'll only get more deadly. 

This could also help Lillard's assist rate, which is 24.9 percent this year—a below-average rate that lands in the Monta Ellis strata.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Lillard isn't even a year-and-a-half into his career, so these are considered slight ticks rather than career-defining traits. It's also only fair to point out we've thankfully moved past the archaic notion that point guards must be pass-first. Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry are just two examples of the supposed "score-first" point guards finding superstardom and success, though both are more advanced passers.

This isn't all to detract from Lillard's stellar sophomore campaign. He and Curry are arguably the two most entertaining below-the-rim players in the league. Even if Lillard isn't always doing the things nerdy nerds like myself would prefer, the league is better and more fun with players like him; not everyone needs to have a LeBron Jamesian obsession with efficiency.

Rather, pointing out Lillard's shortcomings helps highlight the team-wide excellence in Portland. The Blazers are an offensive juggernaut, averaging 110.7 points per 100 possessions—nearly two points better than second-place Miami. They haven't been held below 100 points since the Monday before Thanksgiving. 

What's interesting is that, in a league that continues its push toward eradicating the mid-range jumper, the Blazers are the league's most efficient unit while thumbing their nose at supposed efficiency.

Portland has taken 54 more mid-range jumpers than any other team. On a per-game basis, the Blazers take more than three times as many undesirables as the Houston Rockets, whose D-League team is attempting three-pointers at "a historic pace" according to ESPN. 

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Typically viewed as the NBA's least-efficient area, Portland eschews criticism by simply being better than anyone else. Only the Thunder and Magic hit a higher percentage of their mid-range jumpers, and that comes in large part thanks to Aldridge. The once-disgruntled forward has taken an NBA-high 322 mid-range jumpers this year, over 100 attempts higher than the next most frequent player. That represents an overwhelming share of the Blazers' shots, which is pretty dope considering Aldridge ranks just outside the top 10 in efficiency (min. 75 attempts).

The Blazers also do all the other things you'd expect from an elite offensive club. They lead the NBA in three-pointers made per 100 possessions, get to the line at a league-average rate and have multiple solid passers who atone for Lillard's shortcomings in that area.

Nicolas Batum is one of the league's best passing wings and is one of only four players averaging at least 13 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, according Basketball-Reference.com. Mo Williams has also proven to be a stellar signing, providing leadership and a reliable secondary ball-handler that was absent on last year's team.

As long as Lillard, Batum and Wesley Matthews are hitting from deep with banana-attempt marks, the Blazers shouldn't see much atrophy in their offensive efficiency. Their only worries come on nights where the jumpers won't fall, as Portland is one of the worst teams in the league inside the paint. 

That, of course, and the team's dreadful defense, which has hung around the bottom-10 all season. The Blazers just aren't good on that end, and their profile doesn't point to much of an improvement. Batum has long been a guy with the tools to be an elite wing-stopper without ever consistently producing. Lillard is a big fat minus. SportVU data exposes Robin Lopez as a quietly elite rim-protector, but he struggles in pick-and-roll coverage and other areas despite consistent effort. Matthews and Aldridge are fine but have their hit-or-miss nights.

If the Blazers are going to keep winning, they're going to have to keep scoring. That's what makes them such an interesting potential playoff team. Would a team with seven chances and extended breaks between games be able to expose Portland's flaws? Or is Portland's high-flying offense merely revolutionizing what it means to be a contender?

Those answers remain unclear. But as they move to 18 games above .500 a week before Christmas, what is clear is that the Blazers will have a shot—perhaps with home-court advantage. And if said playoff games come down to the final shot, may Lillmatic have mercy on your souls.

 

Stats via NBA.com unless otherwise cited.

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