What Blazers Need from Damian Lillard to Keep NBA Playoffs Dream Alive

Joshua J Vannuccini@@jjvannucciniSenior Analyst IIIMay 12, 2014

PORTLAND, OR - MAY 10: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers reacts to an officials call in the second half of Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center on May 10, 2014 in Portland, Oregon. The Spurs won the game 118-103. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

No NBA team has ever made a comeback to win a playoff series after trailing 3-0, although three have pushed through to force a Game 7. It's unlikely the Portland Trail Blazers will be able to do so against the veteran San Antonio Spurs, but their playoff hopes don't have to die yet.

And it starts with Damian Lillard

After a scintillating start to his debut postseason against the Houston Rockets, Lillard has had his fair share of struggles against one of the best defensive teams in the league. The Spurs were tested in the first round, after going to seven games against the Dallas Mavericks, and look to be in prime form for the postseason.

Lillard has managed 19.0 points on just 37.5 percent field-goal shooting thus far in the second round, with San Antonio completely taking away his long-range shot. He's 1-of-13 on three-point field goals, or 7.7 percent, as the Spurs have been able to rotate and switch defensively to keep him contained.

But there is more Lillard can do to keep the Blazers in the playoffs for a little while longer.

Start Out Strong

It's much easier said than done, but Lillard needs to burst out of the gates right from the beginning. Per NBA.com, the point guard has averaged four points on 35.7 percent shooting in the first quarter of the three games in the series. 

Lillard's teammate in LaMarcus Aldridge has played much worse, with 4.3 points on 28.6 percent shooting in the opening period. Hence, it's more important that he gets everything into gear. Portland doesn't necessarily play a traditional style offensively, as Lillard has the ability to play both on ball and off ball. 

Portland needs to force it through him a little more to open the game, with him attempting 4.7 shots to Aldridge's 7.0 shots so far. It'd be a character flaw for Lillard to just start jacking up shots, so it needs to be an orchestrated strategy from head coach Terry Stotts and his staff.

Aldridge faces the defense of Tim Duncan and Co. on the interior, which spells tougher competition than that which Lillard will see on the perimeter. Tony Parker is an able defender, but Lillard is able to lose him off screens to shoot or cut to the rim and collapse the defense.

Doing so would free up the Blazers to spread the floor and look for their three-point shooting, as they've converted just 33.3 percent against the Spurs at this stage. Portland managed 34.2 percent from deep during the regular season against them, so it's clearly a product of San Antonio's defense.

But simultaneously, it remains one of Portland's deadliest offensive weapons that needs to come through in Game 4. And Lillard can be the spark plug for that option.

Lillard Needs to Be Himself...

The Blazers went 2-2 against the Spurs in the regular season, and Lillard played a big role. One of the best things he can do at this point is to watch some film and find the areas where he had the most success.

Lillard averaged 25.0 points and 6.3 assists in the four regular-season games, shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from three-point range (1.8 three-point shots made per game). We already brushed over on how he needs to be ready from the opening tip, but he also needs to carry that over into the entire game.

Greg Wahl-Stephens/Associated Press

Lillard's demonstrated the ability to have success against this team, which has indeed adjusted to the rigors of the postseason but in retrospect is the same squad he played well against earlier in the year. Despite falling short with his three-point shooting thus far, Lillard needs to go back to it until he finds it.

He does have the ability to play in the middle but is best from long range or cutting his way to the rim. And with the Spurs packing the paint to keep Aldridge and Robin Lopez off the boards, Lillard will need to hit shots from outside to open it up a little.

Of course it'd be folly for him to launch away hoping to knock one down, hence it should be a case of Lillard finding open spots on the floor and taking advantage. They won't be available often against San Antonio's defense, so it's imperative Lillard capitalizes when they are.

...And a Little More

The point guard is a talented scorer and always finds a way to get his points, but one notable distinction in the regular-season series against San Antonio was Lillard's distributing.

In the two wins, he dished out an average of 8.0 assists but managed only 4.5 per game in the two losses. Again, the Spurs are one of the top defensive teams in the league and have stepped up with playoff success in the headlights, so it isn't as simple as Lillard just flipping the switch and finding his teammates.

But just as pivotal as his role as a scorer is, Lillard must also utilize his playmaking to draw the defense in. By hitting shots and making plays, San Antonio will have no choice but to adjust and increase cover.

PORTLAND, OR - MAY 10: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers takes a shot against the San Antonio Spurs in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 10, 2014 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

San Antonio is a veteran-laden squad, so it's a stretch to believe Lillard will thwart the defensive prowess the team has single-handedly. 

Yet with Aldridge in the post, Nicolas Batum on the perimeter as a sort of point forward and the plethora of shooters available, Lillard can be the X-factor to shake things up and get the offense rolling.

He's the only capable player to truly do so outside of Aldridge and Batum, as the rest of Portland's offensive weapons are one-dimensional to a certain extent. Lillard has shown flashes of being an excellent distributor, but it isn't an elite skill he possesses. 

He's no doubt solid by averaging 6.3 assists to 2.6 turnovers during the playoffs, and his playmaking will be key to just about everything we covered. By creating space, running sets and getting aggressive offensively, the floor will open up for himself and for his teammates.

Onward, to Game 4

San Antonio is undoubtedly the most experienced team left in the postseason, with an abundance of crafty veterans in tow. Portland has its fair share, but the true distinction is that its veterans lack playoff wisdom.

It's a whole different ball game in the postseason, and the Blazers have learned that the hard way in the second round. Lillard's first postseason started out strong, but he's come crashing back down to earth against the Spurs.

It doesn't have to end prematurely though, so long as Lillard is able to break free of the defensive grip San Antonio has on the young point guard.

There are a few areas he can focus on to lead his team and keep the Blazers' postseason story breathing. He's done an admirable job so far, and it'd be foolish to count Portland out just yet. 

No one said it'd be easy, and the chances are slim but they're still there for Lillard to pursue. 

Go get 'em, kid.


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