Tuesday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Portland Trail Blazers was an opportunity for fans to see two of the league's premier young point guards, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, face off. Even the reigning league MVP was excited for this one.
And the viewers who tuned in during the fourth quarter were not disappointed.
The 2011-12 Rookie of the Year (Irving) and the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year (Lillard) took over the tight, back-and-forth contest during the last few minutes. Irving scored nine points in 61 seconds to bring the Cavs back from an eight-point deficit with just seconds to spare. But it was Lillard who put the final nail in the coffin for the Cavs. His last-second three capped off a scintillating 119-116 victory.
For a moment, it seemed like the entire league stopped, hopped on Twitter and paid tribute to Lillard.
That's how u feel youngin? I see u lillard! Oh boy— Jordan Crawford (@jcraw55) December 18, 2013
Big shot by Lillard— Brandon Rush (@BRush_25) December 18, 2013
Now, buzzer-beaters have traditionally been the domain of Irving, who made last year's All-Star Game—and a whole bunch of commercials—on the strength of his impeccable handle and his resume of game-winning shots. But Lillard is doing his best to take not only the "clutch" title away from Irving, but also the coveted crown of "Best NBA Point Guard Under 25."
Lillard was clearly the better player in this contest, with 36 points on 11-of-23 shooting, 10 assists, eight rebounds and eight threes. It was a rare feat.
Damian Lillard is 1st NBA player with at least 36 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds and eight 3-pointers since Jason Kidd (April 11, 1995).— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) December 18, 2013
Kyrie finished with 25 points on 9-of-22 shooting and 10 assists, but he was no match for Lillard, who did to Irving what Irving has been doing to opponents for three years.
The Undisputed Champ
Coming into Tuesday's game, Damian Lillard had been a better point guard than Kyrie Irving this season. In fact, the competition hadn't been particularly close.
If you take each player's per-36-minutes stats, then they performed roughly the same.
But if you look at more advanced statistics, like true shooting percentage (which weighs the value of twos, threes and free throws), player efficiency rating and win shares, then Lillard clearly comes out on top.
According to Basketball-Reference, Lillard was already worth two more wins to the Blazers than Irving was to the Cavs.
The argument for Irving is that his teammates are vastly inferior to Lillard's, so he has to do more to lead his team to victory.
While it is true that Irving has inferior teammates relative to Lillard, it seems clear that Irving has a much more talented team that he had in his first two seasons in Cleveland—Andrew Bynum has looked good recently, Anderson Varejao has come back from last season's knee surgery, Jarrett Jack has provided veteran stability in the backcourt and Dion Waiters has seemingly found his niche coming off the bench.
This game went a long way to overriding the "better teammates" argument. For the first 46 minutes of the game, Irving was the third-best player on the Cavs. Andrew Bynum punished the Blazers' interior D in the first half, scoring 13 points. In the second half, the Cavs went completely away from Bynum; he didn't attempt another field goal.
In the second half, Waiters took over, scoring 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Meanwhile, Irving struggled, missing his first two shots of the fourth quarter as Lillard and the Blazers built an eight-point lead.
But Irving, as he is wont to do, turned it on down the stretch. He was amazing in those final two minutes, scoring nine points on three shots and dishing to Varejao for the tie. He played well enough in those last two minutes to stage an improbable comeback, but it could not make up for those first 46 minutes of subpar basketball.
Beating Kyrie at His Own Game
In the end, it was Lillard's turn. He isolated at the top of the three-point line, and when his defender backed off, he canned a cold-blooded jumper from well beyond the arc.
Not only were Lillard's numbers better than Irving, but he even beat Irving at "the star's game"—isolating his defender with the clock running down and draining the game-winner. Like Irving, he is an elite player when it comes to beating his man one-on-one.
Per Synergy Sports:
Damian Lillard measures up D and sinks the go ahead 3 vs CLE late. He's the 5th most effective iso scorer in the league this season.— mySynergySports (@mySynergySports) December 18, 2013
And he has built an impressive resume of buzzer-beaters already. In fact, this was his second game-winner in his past two games.
Lillard may not have been a first overall pick, and he may not have the Uncle Drew commercials, but he's beginning to surpass Irving in both stats and late-game highlights.
Sadly for Lillard, many fans—particularly All-Star voters—haven't taken notice quite yet.
Per HoopsWorld's Alex Kennedy:
Rajon Rondo, who has yet to play a single game this season, has 25,000 more All-Star votes than Damian Lillard.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) December 18, 2013
The fans need to know that the Portland Trail Blazers are not just LaMarcus Aldridge; they have a second star in Lillard, one of the best young point guards in the league.