Damian 'Lillard Time' Nowhere to Be Found and Thursday NBA Playoff Takeaways

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistApril 20, 2018

Damian 'Lillard Time' Nowhere to Be Found and Thursday NBA Playoff Takeaways

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    The New Orleans Pelicans seized complete control of their first-round series with a 119-102 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers that extended their lead to 3-0. 

    A margin that large is a bit shocking. But the Pelicans' positioning themselves for advancement shouldn't be too surprising in and of itself. This always figured to be a series that could've gone either way, and discrediting New Orleans just because it entered the clash with the lower seed was never a smart idea. 

    Of course, a different development in this Western Conference battle is rather unexpected.

    After struggling to establish himself as a deadly offensive threat in either of the first two games, Damian Lillard continued his unsuccessful search for a consistent shooting stroke. Hounded by Jrue Holiday, who has thoroughly outplayed him in the first three contests and proved the Pelicans are so much more than a one-man show revolving around Anthony Davis, the Rip City 1-guard just hasn't looked even remotely like himself. 

    And if Portland wants to have any shot at a comeback, that has to change in expeditious fashion. 

Dame Time? Try Desperation Time

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    After a 17-point defeat, it's now or never. 

    Though the Portland Trail Blazers entered their first-round clash with the New Orleans Pelicans as the higher seed, they've dug themselves into a 3-0 hole. The odds are stacked against them if they want a shot at challenging the Golden State Warriors for a berth in the Western Conference Finals. And if they're going to flip the script, Damian Lillard has to show up. 

    Overstating Lillard's performance during the regular season is nearly impossible. Though he plays at a loaded position with plenty of worthy candidates, he should be a near lock for an All-NBA spot after thriving from start to finish. Constantly taking tough shots and shouldering immense offensive loads for Rip City, he even improved his pick-and-roll defense to become a complete threat at the point. 

    But suffocated by Jrue Holiday and a Pelicans defense intent on stifling the life out of his offensive game, he's struggled throughout the postseason—a strange development for a player who prides himself on clutch play and has thrived during previous playoff affairs. Through the first two games of the series, he averaged just 17.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists while shooting 31.7 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from downtown. 

    "Lillard's allure is predicated on his prowess in clutch situations; Big Game Dame's closing arguments for All-NBA honors came in Portland's closing minutes,"  wrote for The Ringer after defeat No. 2. "But what's a nickname if it doesn't ring true on the biggest stage?"

    Somehow, the new narrative didn't just continue Thursday night. It got worse. 

    If ever a player looked like he got Monstared prior to a postseason outing, it was Lillard in Game 3. He couldn't get anything going against the NOLA defense before making a few tough buckets with the margin already well into double digits. And when he wasn't getting off shots that failed to find twine, he was coughing up possessions en route to an all-around ugly night.

    When the game mercifully ended, the floor general had 20 points, three rebounds, two assists and eight turnovers while going 5-of-14 from the field and 3-of-9 from beyond the arc. His shooting slash line on the series is now up—yes, this actually helped his numbers—to a putrid 32.7/32.0/91.7. 

    Changing this isn't going to be easy. Holiday is locked in on the preventing end, capable of handling this difficult matchup all on his lonesome. But his job is made even easier by the presence of Anthony Davis, who's waiting to guard the interior whenever his point guard pushes foes into his territory. 

    Lillard simply has to make tough, contested shots going forward. Easy ones aren't coming. Though you wouldn't know it if you're just starting to tune in, that's something he's done all year, hitting 51.3 percent of his regular-season looks with the closest defender within two feet—the highest percentage he'd post against any defender range. 

    Now he just seems shaken. Not only did he fail to make a single bucket with defense classified as "very tight" by NBA.com in the first two losses, but the frequency with which he fired away in that situation halved as well. That didn't change in Game 3, as he was again frustrated into deferments and misfires. He's not even frequenting the free-throw stripe anymore.

    Again, this has to change. 

    If Lillard flops yet again in what could be the final contest of the series, it won't diminish what he did throughout the first 82 games, establishing himself as an All-Star, All-NBA candidate and fringe MVP threat. But it will change his reputation, canceling out those gesticulations to an imaginary watch that indicate how comfortable he is playing with the pressure cooker turned up to 11. 

    Saturday's Game 4 is his biggest stage yet. The stakes haven't been higher, though the climb out of this 3-0 pit will be long and arduous. Now more than ever, Portland needs for it to finally become Dame Time. 

Evaluating a Masked Joel Embiid

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    Precious few NBA centers have proved capable of checking Joel Embiid throughout the 2017-18 season as he continues his unrelenting ascent up the positional hierarchy. But the mask protecting his fractured orbital bone was able to do what they couldn't...during the first half, at least. 

    By the time the final buzzer sounded, ringing in a 128-108 victory for the Philadelphia 76ers that was far closer than the margin indicates, Embiid had fully adjusted. It just took time, patience and more than a few attempts to either fumble with his new facial feature or throw it across the court in frustration. Justise Winslow even did his darnedest to stomp the life out of the mask at one point, which his opponent, then frustrated by its mere presence, probably didn't mind at the time. 

    The big man's first quarter in Game 3 against the Miami Heat was a mixed bag—perfectly natural for a young man making his first career postseason appearance after sitting out since his early departure from a March 28 contest with the New York Knicks. On the road in a hostile playoff environment? Going against a physical adversary in Hassan Whiteside? Trying to shake off the nerves and rust? Dealing with a new piece of equipment fogging up and obstructing his vision?

    He was always going to endure an adjustment period.  

    Nevertheless, Embiid made his presence felt early on the defensive end, shutting down the paint and forcing Miami to bury threes while he was on the floor. That persisted throughout the night, allowing Ben Simmons and Robert Covington to play with aggression throughout the second half once he'd settled in as an impenetrable last line of defense. On the flip side, he didn't make a shot from the field until late in the second quarter and had conspicuous issues with his ball-handling throughout the night.

    But the offense did eventually come around. By the end of the night, he no longer needed to rely on whistles to get his points. The full arsenal had come around, allowing him to drain plenty of momentum-earning jumpers and rack up an impressive line: 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, one steal and three blocks while shooting 5-of-11 from the field, 3-of-4 from downtown and 10-of-15 from the stripe. 

    Can we shelve any concerns now? 

    Embiid's mask gave him a different appearance, but he was the same dominant force by the time Game 3 had drawn to its conclusion and given the Sixers a 2-1 series lead. And if he's going to show so few ill effects from the time off and thrive as a rim-protecting defensive stud who can take over possessions from the perimeter or the blocks alike, Philadelphia becomes all the more terrifying. 

    This was a growing-up experience for the youthful challengers in the Eastern Conference, and the starting center might have done more growing than anyone else. 

Aggressive Justise Winslow Is Good Justise Winslow

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    The Heat need players other than Goran Dragic (who was brilliant throughout the 128-108 loss) to play above expectations during this first-round series, and Winslow answered the bell Thursday night with a performance that should have Miami supporters frothing at the mouth. Granted, he only excelled on offense for the first two quarters, but this was more about the process than the results.

    Throughout his 15 minutes of action, he played with the unrelenting aggression that should serve as the next step in his developmental process. 

    Winslow is already a tough, physical defender. He's a tremendous secondary distributor capable of running pick-and-roll sets at the top of the key. But he's never been a scorer at the NBA level, plagued by a missing jumper that's forced him to top out at 11.3 points per 36 minutes each of the last two seasons—the latter featuring a 42.4/38.0/63.5 slash line. 

    "Justise Winslow isn't THIS kind of shooter, but if he develops into an average three-point shooter, he's a bonafide star," Jeff Siegel of The Step Back tweeted during Winslow's 4-of-5 deep-shooting exhibition in the opening half, which helped him tally a 19-spot before the second quarter came to a close. "Already a solid playmaker for a wing and obviously a fantastic defender."

    But while Winslow's shot was falling (and the one miss came on a contested heat check), his aggression attacking the hoop was even more beneficial. Multiple times, he pulled down a rebound or corralled an outlet pass and then burst toward the hoop like he was shot out of a cannon. Though he sometimes seems a bit out of control, he has the combination of size, physicality and touch to either draw a whistle or convert an opportunity at the rim. 

    Winslow scored an additional 0.5 points per game in Miami victories this season, but the bigger discrepancy came at the stripe. During losses, he took just 1.3 free-throw attempts per contest. When his team came out on top, that number crept up to 1.8—by no means an insignificant difference for a tertiary scorer tasked with just 24.7 minutes during his average outing. If anything, it's indicative of a more attack-driven mentality. 

    The Duke product hadn't done much on offense through the first two games of this intense series. But if he can sustain his exploits into the second halves of his outings (even if his three-point shooting regresses to its typical level), he'll increase the Heat's postseason ceiling by a meaningful margin. 

    After giving back home-court advantage, they'll need that. 

Pay Attention to the Warriors' Turnover Figures

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    The Golden State Warriors may seem like an offensive juggernaut. Even with Stephen Curry watching from the sidelines with a sprained MCL, they've often functioned like one during their opening-round affair with the San Antonio Spurs—a series they're one game away from sealing after Thursday night's 110-97 victory. 

    But they're not perfect. 

    For further clarification, we need only dive into the Four Factors, which analyze basketball's fundamental components: shooting, rebounding, turnovers and free throws. Golden State is exemplary in the first one, pacing the league in effective field-goal percentage with room to spare. It's only mediocre at getting to the stripe and generating second-chance points, but its shooting prowess nearly nullifies those issues. 

    The bigger problem—the one that can hold the Dubs back against high-quality opponents—is carelessness. Basketball comes so easily for them that they can sometimes get sloppy, throwing thoughtless passes and getting overly aggressive. When the turnovers pile up, they're beatable.

    On the season, Golden State's 15.3 turnover percentage sits at No. 27, better than only the youthful 76ers (16.1) and the lowly Atlanta Hawks (15.4) and tied with the similarly downtrodden Memphis Grizzlies (15.3). In losses, that swells to 17.1 percent, beating just the Sixers (17.8). 

    Naturally, it'll be important to track this potential concern throughout the playoffs. Are the defending champions capable of flipping the proverbial switch and playing tighter, more focused basketball? Will the postseason's increased defensive pressure affect them? 

    Before the latest outing, the answers had been no and yes, respectively. 

    Heading into Game 3 against the Spurs, their turnover percentage sat at an uninspiring 15.7. No one in particular had been overly sloppy, but the cough-ups still piled up and prevented the Warriors from running away from San Antonio quite as easily as they otherwise might've. 

    But this was the best showing yet, dropping the number of turnovers from 15 in each of the first two contests to a meager 10. That's especially notable for a team that has kept its mistakes to single digits only four times this year—all of which resulted in wins by an average of 14.3 points per game. 

    Keep an eye on that number. It'll tell you a lot about Golden State's attention to detail as the Warriors continues their title defense, and Thursday night was the best sign yet the team is focusing. 

Fear the Non-Beard

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    The world already knows about Anthony Davis, who has continued to look like a member of the Avengers during the playoffs. It's quickly learning about the full extent of Jrue Holiday's powers now that he's making a mockery of his marquee matchup with Damian Lillard. But a third musketeer is emerging, more unrecognizable than ever because he scrapped the follicular forest he'd been cultivating throughout his time in the Association. 

    Seriously, take a gander at this set of performances from Nikola Mirotic, who the Pelicans acquired in a midseason trade with the Chicago Bulls:

    • Game 1: 16 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals on 6-of-15 shooting from the field and 4-of-10 shooting from downtown
    • Game 2: 17 points, eight rebounds and two blocks on 6-of-11 shooting from the field and 3-of-7 shooting from downtown
    • Game 3: 30 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one block and three steals on 12-of-15 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 shooting from downtown

    Mirotic is locked in.

    He's upped his postseason career high during each of his games against the Blazers after two prior playoff stints with the Bulls. And perhaps most notably, he's given the Pelicans even more upside as they attempt to navigate through the Western Conference while DeMarcus Cousins watches from the sidelines and rehabs his Achilles rupture. 

    The power forward's shooting drags opposing bigs out toward the perimeter, opening lanes for Holiday's attacking drives, Rajon Rondo's probes for kick-out lanes and Davis' all-around interior dominance. His ability to put the ball on the floor and find open teammates makes him even more dangerous. 

    But this was a flat-out shooting masterpiece from Mirotic. It was only the 37th time in 2017-18 someone has gone for at least 30 points with no more than 15 field-goal attempts, as well as the first such showing during postseason play.  

    Maybe it's time to start talking about a new NOLA Big Three.

               

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com and are current heading into games April 19.