Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard Breaks Down What Makes Him a Big-Time Closer

Jared Zwerling@JaredZwerlingNBA Senior WriterMay 6, 2014

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So how does a guy who just hit the biggest shot of his career spend the next day? By stepping away from his craft, as Damian Lillard did, and watching his older brother, Houston, throw for 159 yards and six touchdowns on Saturday in his Indoor Football League game in Kennewick, Wash.

"I just wanted to relax," Lillard told Bleacher Report. "There's still more work to be done," which, starting Tuesday night, means trying to take out the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.

But that doesn't mean the All-Star point guard has overlooked the impact of his buzzer-beating three-pointer that finished off the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. "I've seen [the shot] a bunch of times," he said.

On Sunday, when Lillard was back on the practice court with the Portland Trail Blazers, he reflected on how the franchise-changing play unfolded, propelling the team to the second round for the first time in 14 years.

"I was standing and I felt [Chandler Parsons'] arm on me, and I was just watching the referee to see when he was going to give the ball over," he said. "And [the Rockets] were communicating whether or not they were going to switch, and as soon as [the referee] handed the ball [to Nicolas Batum], I just took off running. I think I kind of caught them off guard. I just took off. I was able to get a step on [Parsons] and get a look at the rim.

"The most exciting thing was just to see how everybody reacted to it. You got to see how valuable that game was, how much it meant to everybody, how much it meant to see that ball go in and to win that game—from the fans to the coaches to the training staff to the ball boys to our team. That's what made me feel the best about it."

Friday's win marked the fifth time in Lillard's two-year career that he's hit a go-ahead shot in the final 10 seconds of a game, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He has four makes this season alone, including the one against the Rockets, and he's the leader in the category since 2012, shooting 5-of-13 in those crunch-time situations. Interestingly, each game-winner has been different—a three-pointer off a pick-and-roll against the New Orleans Pelicans, a layup off a pick-and-roll against the Phoenix Suns, a fadeaway off a spin move against the Detroit Pistons, a face-up three against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the long ball in Game 6 that came off a double screen.

Lillard took Bleacher Report inside his mind as a clutch performer—from his drive and development to preparing for a last-second shot, how he quickly and effectively becomes a threat with only seconds remaining and much more. Below are 13 takeaways.

1. Becoming clutch doesn't begin with having the best moves; it's having the mentality. "Growing up, I just loved that part of the game. I love when games are on the line, and even since eighth grade I've always felt that part of the game. I don't remember my first game-winning shot, but I used to alwaysbefore I walked away from any court—count down and make a game-winner to myself. I have a bunch of backyard moments like that when I was younger. And I always worked on shooting a bad shot or a tough shot to try to win the game in my head. Even today, I always work on difficult shots from all spots on the court."

2. The most important trait clutch shooters share is confidence. "There have been times where I was having a great shooting game and there have been times where I wasn't having a great shooting game. But you've got to have confidence that—in those last few seconds, no matter what's happening out there—you know you can win it. I've always been confident with everything I do in my life."

3. Kobe Bryant and Brandon Roy are two of the best closers. "I watch a lot of Brandon Roy's stuff on YouTube all the time. With Brandon, it reminded me of how I am a lot—just getting to your spot and making it happen. And with Kobe, it's just having that killer attitude—just to go out there to kill and have confidence in what you're coming to do. They're both always ready to take the big-time shot."

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 10:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers and Brandon Roy #7 of the Portland Trail Blazers fights for position on the court during the game on April 10, 2009 at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon.  The Trail Blazers won 106-98.
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

4. Find your inner calm and don't worry about failure. "I've seen a lot worse than missing a game-winning shot or turning the ball over at the end of a game. I've had a lot worse experience in my life growing up in Oakland—(drugs, being around gangs and getting robbed at gunpoint)—so I don't fear that I can fail at making a shot.

"I don't see it as a threat if it doesn't go perfect, and I always feel like I'm going to make it. I always feel there's an opportunity to rise to the occasion. I'm never nervous. I wouldn't even use nervous as a word. I would say anxious for the ball to get into play, so I can hurry up and go try to make it happen. I'm also anxious about the result, period."

5. Your mind-set should be to always want to take the big shot. "A lot of last-second plays are drawn up for me and a lot of plays are drawn up for [LaMarcus Aldridge]. We actually work on end-of-game plays in practice, which help me prepare for the actual in-game situations. But even if the play is not for me, I feel like there's an opportunity for me to go get the ball because the play is not working out how we drew it up. Then I'll definitely want to go move toward the ball.

"When coach [Terry Stotts] is drawing the play up, I just sit back in my chair and I take deep breaths. I try to relax myself—my trainer [Anthony Eggleton] and I work on breathing techniques in the summer to calm myself and stay focused. And as coach is drawing it up and I see where I'm at on the board, I try to figure out where I can get to the floor to try to make something happen. Sometimes I'll offer suggestions."

6. There are moments where you've just got to go with your gut. "Sometimes when I come to the huddle, I'll just say, 'Give me the ball.' I just know that I can make it."

PORTLAND, OR - MAY 2: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers celebrates with Robin Lopez #42 of the Portland Trail Blazers after hitting a last second shot to win the game in the fourth quarter of Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

7. When you catch the ball with the clock winding down, it's important to look right away at the help-side defenders. "I want to see if they're looking like they're heading in my direction, I want to see who they're guarding—because I know if the guy is guarding Wes [Matthews] on the wing and I start going in that direction, he's not going to help off of Wes because Wes can really knock down that shot.

"It's also about reading the shot-blockers who are guarding our bigs. There might be a big who, if he thinks I can get in the paint, comes over to try and block my shot. Then I'll be able to find LA. I'm just reading who's guarding who, are they looking to help, how much of an isolation is it—stuff like that."

8. When you get closer to your defender, try to catch him off guard with one quick dribble in place. "Once I do that, the defender is going to react most of the time, and it's usually going to be him backing up because he thinks I'm going to try to go past him. Sometimes I pick that quick dribble up and I just raise up for a three-pointer before they can close that space again." (Lillard did that against the Cavaliers.)

"At the end of the game, once I get space I don't care where I am on the floor. At that point, I'm just looking to get a clear look at the rim, and I feel like I've got a shot to knock it down."

9. It's better to let your instincts take over instead of having pre-planned counter moves, but sometimes you take notes. "There's one sequence I liked from Game 3 against the Rockets. I had a possession where Patrick Beverley was on my side and I went behind the back and I lost him. I completely got around him and he was out of the play. I could've kept going, but as soon as I did it I just stopped my dribble and stepped back for a jumper. I was like, 'OK, now I know. If I really go hard in one direction and he tries to get into my body and I change direction going behind my back, there's no way he can stay in the play.'"

10. Watching film of last-second makes and mistakes doesn't do much. That knowledge comes from the game itself, leading up to the final shot. "I just make the adjustment based off of what they've done to cover me the whole game. However they defended me the whole game, I'll be able to read where I can get a good look. If I call for an iso at the end of a quarter, some teams would take the 4 man and they would run him at me—basically double-teaming me and they would zone up everybody else.

"That lets me know at the end of a game, I'm not going to call for an iso because they're just going to get the ball out of my hands. So maybe I'll do like a one-two pick-and-roll, where I have the 2-guard coming and setting a pick-and-roll. They'll probably switch it, and then by the time they switch it knowing the 2-guard runs off from the screen, I'll be able to just take my man in the last couple seconds."

11. It's a benefit having four other players on the court with you who can score in the final seconds of a game. "Something that I think is huge for us is everybody on the floor is a threat. When you're on the floor with four other guys that are threats, it makes the defense have to be honest. When the defense has to be honest, that's more space for you to operate. Teams know that Nico can knock down shots and get to the rim, they know that Wes can knock down shots and get to the rim, they know that LA is our best player. They know that Robin [Lopez] has good hands and he can finish really well, and he's big. They make the game easier for me."

PORTLAND, OR - MAY 2:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers huddles up his team against the Houston Rockets in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 2, 2014 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon.
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

12. Intense, rapid-fire training can also help you stay ready late in games when it matters most. "All my workouts are the same. You're going to get out what you put into this game and hard work is what got me here. All my reps I practice at 100 miles per hour, and that last shot that I made in Game 6 was at a 100 miles per hour sprint. When you prepare like that, it makes it that much easier when the time comes. You get confidence in that and the game comes easier when you know that you worked for it.

"I've been working with [Eggleton] since eighth grade. While we don't simulate last-second situations, a lot of the stuff is just mental toughness. He tries to run me through the ground to see if I'm going to be able to respond when I'm weak. That's why his stuff works when I might be tired late in the fourth quarter."

13. It's rewarding to be a fan of your game-winners just like everyone else. "I watch TV and look at social media all the time because the way I see myself is I'm just me. I'm just the same young Damian from Oakland who went to Weber State and was unknown. When I go places, sometimes I don't even expect people to recognize me because I don't see myself as a big shot or anything like that.

"After Game 6, it just blows me away, man, that they're actually talking about me and that's me on the TV screen. I'm watching TV and I see myself on the Adidas commercial, or I'm watching NBA TV and they're constantly showing highlights of the game-winner, or people are constantly mentioning my name. And just how fast the game-winner went all over the place—different countries, all over the U.S.—it's just crazy."

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


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