The 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year helped lead this year's Blazers to the fifth seed in the Western Conference playoffs before ousting the Houston Rockets in the first round.
While everything had been running smoothly for Lillard, he's recently run into a buzzsaw known as the San Antonio Spurs. Already down 3-1 in the series, Lillard is facing his first real struggle since entering the league.
Despite the disappointment he might currently be enduring, a series like this will actually be crucial to Lillard's development.
Growing pains are part of any young star's NBA journey, and Lillard is simply the latest to go through this necessary experience.
Lillard vs. the Spurs
After putting up 25.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists on 46.8-percent shooting from the field in six games against the Houston Rockets, Lillard has fallen back to earth against the Spurs.
San Antonio's constant pressure and suffocating defense is limiting Lillard to just 20.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists on 41.6-percent shooting from the field, a far cry from the production he was enjoying in the first round.
One big reason for this is the way the Spurs force Lillard into shooting from low-percentage areas of the court. Against the Rockets, half of Lillard's field-goal attempts came from three-point land, where he connected on a whopping 48.9 percent. Only 6.5 percent of his scoring came via the mid-range jumper, widely considered the least efficient area to shoot from on the court.
San Antonio is doing a great job of contesting Lillard at the three-point line, as he's made just three of his 19 attempts. Lillard's having to settle for long jumpers far more often in this series, with his mid-range scoring making up 21.1 percent of his entire offense.
On the other hand, the Spurs offense is abusing Lillard, forcing him to chase Tony Parker around the court at all times. While Lillard registered a defensive rating of 109.4 against the Rockets, that number has now ballooned to 116.8 against San Antonio. Jack Winter of Hardwood Paroxysm tells us more:
Learning to defend at the NBA level is about experience as much anything else. It takes multiple seasons of trial and error for young players to develop the mental acuity and physical persistence to play dependable, high-level defense. Lillard has the makeup to be a solid defender, but he’s lacking in both respects right now. And against San Antonio, those weaknesses are only enhanced.
Besides offense and defense, the Spurs are beating Lillard up physically with hard screen after hard screen.
“Their screens hurt. They actually set real screens,” Lillard told Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com. “They do a great job of setting and holding screens. It wears you down. Chasing Tony Parker is one thing. Getting hit every single time is another thing. It takes a toll on you.”
Lillard is the heart and soul of the Blazers, but he is getting physically and emotionally exhausted as the series goes along, telling Haynes:
“It makes you tired. When you’re tired from chasing him (Parker) around down there, it’s tough to come down on the offensive end and get much done when you’re wore down. It’s hard. I’ve got to do a better job at avoiding screens. That’s a challenge that we’re all going to have to accept.”
The Spurs may have this series wrapped up, but that doesn't mean Lillard can't become a better player in spite of the loss.
Lillard's Not the First
Plenty of star players have gone through their own personal growing pains before taking the next step individually or with their team.
Many of these have come at the hands of the Spurs, most notably for one LeBron James.
James played in his first NBA Finals in 2007 while with the Cleveland Cavaliers. After going 12-4 through the first three rounds against the Washington Wizards, New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons, the Cavs were quickly swept by the Spurs.
James had an unbelievable Eastern Conference Finals against the Pistons, scoring 48 points in Game 6, including the Cavs' last 25 points in a row.
Playing the Spurs, however, was a totally different ballgame.
James scored just 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting in his Finals debut, and would go on to average 22 points on 35.6-percent shooting from the field in the series.
After the sweep, Duncan and James met up to show some mutual respect.
Six years later, James would have his revenge in a 2013 Finals victory over Duncan and the Spurs, using the experience and knowledge he had gained in his team's previous defeat.
Who's to say Lillard and the Blazers can't do the same?
Lillard is one of the best young point guards in the NBA today. Just 23 years of age, he still has plenty of time to establish himself in the league and bring home multiple championships.
Some of the greatest of all time faced a rocky road before taking home a title. James didn't win it all until his ninth season. Michael Jordan took seven years to capture a championship.
If Lillard wants to get there himself one day, he'll have to learn from his mistakes and failures and be open to the realization that now just isn't his time.
The Blazers have a bright future ahead of them, led by Lillard. While times may be tough against the Spurs now, the growing pains endured by Lillard will only help them next year and beyond.
All stats via NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted.
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