Another year, another second half push. The Portland Trail Blazers once again find themselves in a mad dash to the finish line after righting the ship post All Star Break. In the 2016 season, the Blazers went 17-11 after the break to cement the 5th seed in the playoffs. Just like 2016, you could point to a line up change as a catalyst for the improvement, even though this one was a little less organic than last year’s insertion of Mo Harkless as a starter. But right there along with Terry Stott’s line up shuffle is the improved play of Damian Lillard, the Blazers’ polarizing point man and best player.
Lillard has once again turned it on after a ‘snub’ from the All Star game, although it’s hard to argue he was hard done by this time round. Portland went into the All Star break seeming like a broken team – 5th worst defence in the league, Lillard and McCollum scoring but giving back all their points, role players underachieving and off season acquisitions still struggling to consistently fit in – if they made it to the floor.
Fast forward – Nurk Fever has taken over Portlandia, but the play of Lillard has improved dramatically.
Some of this is explained by the presence of the Bosnian Beast. With a bona fide post presence, Dame has had a better target on the pick and roll, as well as a low hub to dump the ball to and cut off of. Mase was averaging 11/8/4/1/1 – hardly bad numbers by any means. But his lack of size and non-existent back to the basket game meant there were very limited scenarios Plumlee could be properly utilised. Nurkic is a proper presence on the interior. His numbers of 14/10/3.5/1/2 eclipse Plumlee on every level. It shows how important fit is in the NBA these days; with Jusuf it just works. It’s hard to envision Plumlee ever having a game like this:
Just as important as the acquisition of Nurkic might be Lillard taking some much needed R&R. Jason Quick had a great interview with Dame, talking about getting his body and mind back on track after a difficult first half of the season.
It’s not surprising Lillard needed a chance to get away and decompress. After the promise of the 2016 playoffs, Portland were tipped by many to challenge for a top 4 spot in the West and build off their 2nd half of the 2016 season. The off season came with big contracts, bigger profiles, and the biggest expectations to date for this group. And whilst Lillard came out hot in October and early November, the Blazers didn’t look like the same team. As the defence got progressively worse, the team spiraled, caught in a vortex of missed defensive assignments and missed expectations.
This all lead to something that had never happened before – whispers of a trade. Lillard is no stranger to doubters – he has written a song about it – and has used that as motivation consistently throughout his early career. He has sometimes been labeled as overrated – a gunner that can only play one side of the ball. When you do things like this, you raise your profile. When that happens people start paying attention to you more and the good and the bad gets magnified – just ask the 2016 James Harden vs the 2017 James Harden what that’s like. Despite all of this, Lillard had always been viewed as a centrepiece player, someone you build around.
But in the lead up to the trade deadline this year, Lillard’s name was suddenly in the rumour mill. The common belief is Lillard and CJ aren’t a sustainable back court pairing, and with CJ also elevating his game (and often playing better – especially down the stretch), some people were wondering if perhaps turning the keys over to CJ would be the way to go. Of course, nothing happened. But Lillard wasn’t exactly thrilled about having his name out there.
Coming out of the break though, Lillard seems to have left those cares behind him and is playing the best basketball of his career. Dame DOLLA has always thrived with his back against the wall, and with Portland desperately needing a spark, Lillard has produced.
Since the break, Dame is 3rd in the NBA in scoring at 30 per game, and trails only Stephen Curry in overall Net Rating for the games elite point guards, including Westbrook, Wall, Irving, Harden, Thomas, Dragic and Paul.
Portland are once again making a mad push to the finish line. Just like last season, the Blazers have been one of the better teams out of the break – consistent offence, better defence. That defence has extended to Lillard, who has improved his D rating by 6 points per 100 possessions. Part of that is better personnel around Lillard. With Lillard and Plumlee sharing the floor, Portland were giving up 1.15 points per possession and an effective field goal percentage of 53, according to nbawowy.com. With Dame and Nurkic sharing the floor, that drops to 1.08 ppp, and an eFG percentage of 49.1.
The supporting cast has finally found their groove too. CJ has been a beneficiary of the increased attention to Lillard – not to mention the screens Nurkic has set – to see his 3 point percentage improve 7 points on an already elite 41% (and an insane 59% on pull up 3s). Harkless has swung back into the starting 5 with the injury to Turner and seen his net rating improve by 9.6 points, with increases to his shooting across the board. And perhaps the biggest reason for excitement is Noah Vonleh. No longer just getting token starter minutes, Vonleh has actually contributed to real basketball in meaningful situations. The defensive numbers with Nurkic and Vonleh on the floor together far eclipse those of Nurk and Chief per nbawowy, which would give Portland a young, long term foundation at the 4 and 5 spots.
Portland have risen from 26th in the league in defensive rating (109!) to 10th out of the break at 104.9. Portland have a record of 12-5 coming out of the break, which is tied with Golden State for 3rd best in the NBA. Lillard’s improved play has him closing the gap with the game’s other elite point guards. Even though Dame has a way to go to have the same numbers in some of the offensive categories of his peers, his overall play has him keeping pace with the best at his position.
The challenge now is maintaining this play for the rest of the 2017 season and beyond. With Portland tied with Denver at 35-38 and only 9 games left, the 8th seed is there to be won. Portland and Denver square off in the Rose City on March the 28th in a match up that could decide the outcome then and there. With Portland currently lead the season series against the Nugs 2-1, tomorrow’s match up could be the clincher for that elusive 8th seed. Denver play 7 of their final 9 on the road (including playing New Orleans twice, OKC twice, Houston, Charlotte, Miami and Dallas). Despite their own tough schedule to finish – Houston, Utah twice, San Antonio and New Orleans – the Blazers have Phoenix and Minnesota to juice up their final record.
It might take more games like this, but Lillard is certainly capable of carrying the team on his back. Stotts finally has a rotation that can score the ball and stop it somewhat on the other end. The improved play has Portland fans once again optimistic about the prospects for a season that seemed lost for so long, and a future that is suddenly very bright. Portland are finally resembling the team so many envisioned coming into the season and Damian Lillard is finally playing like the franchise player he knows he is.