NEW ORLEANS – By the time Damian Lillard had touched down in New Orleans on Wednesday, there had been a day of swirling criticism and questions surrounding his playoff play.
The Trail Blazers’ star paid no mind.
“I’m not concerned with anything being said,’’ Lillard said. “I just gotta find a way to get it done.’’
Perhaps never in Lillard’s six-years in Portland have the Trail Blazers faced a more precarious time. They have not only lost home court advantage in this best-of-seven series, they are in a 0-2 deficit heading to New Orleans.
Most unsettling for the Blazers is they are in this predicament largely because Lillard, the man who always delivers, quite simply has not in the first two games.
Not since the 2015 playoffs against Memphis has the NBA world seen Lillard so out of sorts.
The Trail Blazers’ star has been taken out of the first round series against the Pelicans as a pack of guards -- Jrue Holiday, E’Twuan Moore, Rajon Rondo and Ian Clark, chief among them – have limited his space to operate with traps and physical play.
In the first two games, both Blazers’ losses on their home court, Lillard is averaging 17.5 points – nearly 10 points below his season average – while shooting 31.7 percent from the field (13-for-41) and 31.3 percent from three-point range 5-for-16). In Tuesday’s Game 2 loss, he had seven turnovers.
“I’ve just got to be better,’’ Lillard said after the Game 2 loss. “I think it’s as simple as that.’’
This isn’t the first time Lillard has been stymied at the start of a playoff series. In 2015, against Memphis, Mike Conley and Tony Allen put the clamps on Lillard in the first two games, holding him to a 16.0 scoring average on 27 percent shooting (10-of-37) while limiting him to a total of four assists.
Lillard did rebound over the next three games against Memphis, albeit amid a 4-games-to-1 series loss, averaging 25.3 points while shooting 49.1 percent from the field.
Lillard on Wednesday declined to draw parallels to his 2015 playoffs and his situation against the swarming Pelicans, saying he is a different player, on a different team.
What’s more, Lillard noted, is the Pelicans are not only sending two players at him, sometimes it is three.
It has presented him with a dilemma: make the right play and pass to open teammates? Or try to absorb the scoring load the team so relies on by shaking the defenders and taking a tough shot?
“I think the right thing to do is trust and make the right play, find the next guy,’’ Lillard said after Game 2. “But it’s finding that balance of being aggressive and making those right plays.’’
Stotts said he installed some new wrinkles to the offense before Game 2 that helped the offense, and he added that as coach, his primary focus is getting the team – not just Lillard – going.
One of Lillard’s primary weapons – getting to the free throw line – has been disarmed against the Pelicans. In two games, Lillard has attempted a total of four free throws. In the regular season, he averaged 7.4 attempts a game, and his 538 free throw attempts ranked seventh in the NBA.
“There’s contact,’’ Lillard said Wednesday. “I’m just not getting the calls right now. But I’m surrounded most of the time, so I get it out to the open guy. There just comes a time where I have to be aggressive anyway, and that means I have to take tough shots against a scheme obviously set up to make me do that.’’
Game 3 is Thursday in New Orleans (6 p.m., NBC Sports Northwest), and after the Game 2 loss, Evan Turner said the Stotts urged the team to take on the greatest cliché in sports: One game at a time.
“That’s legit; exact words: Take it one game at a time,’’ Turner said. “The most important thing is to think about one game at a time and not worry about the big picture. Clearly, it’s the first to four wins.’’
The Blazers will try to become the fifth team to lose their first two games at home and come back to win a best-of-seven series, joining the 2017 Celtics, who beat the Bulls in six, the 2005 Mavericks who beat the Rockets in seven, the 1994 Rockets who beat the Suns in seven and the 1969 Lakers, who beat the Warriors in six.