It was in Phoenix on Wednesday night when coach Terry Stotts bolted off the bench and shouted what could be considered music to the ears of Trail Blazers’ fans.
“Good defense, Damian!” Stotts barked, hands clapping. “Way to anticipate!’’
Damian, of course, is Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers’ star. The compliment, of course, was not only rare, but welcomed to a franchise that is trying to regain its defensive footing this season.
Of all the good things that came out of the Trail Blazers’ preseason – and there were many – the team’s improved defense was at the top of the list. On Friday, Stotts noted that the team’s preseason data showed a promising number of deflections, a good percentage of shots contested, and a high rate of possession after chasing loose balls.
At the center of those numbers has been Lillard. For a team that spent much of last season as the NBA’s worst defense, Lillard was often considered its worst defender.
But starting with the first practices of the season – which were heavily focused on defense – Lillard has been noticeable. In the season’s second practice, during a five-minute window opened to the media, Lillard blocked a shot and later denied an entry pass, chasing down the deflection before it went out of bounds.
And during the team’s impressive 5-1 preseason, Lillard sized up the Clippers’ European rookie sensation Milos Teodosic and stripped him at halfcourt and took it in for a layin. Later, in that Wednesday game at Phoenix, he applied steady pressure on ball handlers and was part of the Blazers’ high-deflection rate, leading to more unprompted praise postgame from Stotts.
“I thought Damian got his hands on a lot of balls, and that was good to see,’’ Stotts said in Phoenix. “He was really getting into the ball.’’
All told, Lillard tied CJ McCollum for the team lead with eight steals in the preseason. In addition, Lillard was among the team leaders in floor burns after diving for balls.
After the Phoenix game, I asked him if he felt he has made strides defensively.
“It’s the one thing about my game that is easy to pick apart,’’ Lillard said. “I play the game really well offensively, so I can’t complain when people say things about me defensively, because I have my issues on that end. I always say part of it is because my responsibility on offense: sometimes I’m tired and I give into fatigue and I get hit by a screen and somebody cuts behind me and I lose sight. So my focus has to be better in that way, but I think also each year you learn more. I’m more familiar with what guys like to do. I’m more familiar with what plays teams like to run, like tonight, they called plays and I could position myself to where I don’t have to work as hard, I could anticipate what’s coming …
“I think I have made strides on the defensive end, partially because of that,’’ Lillard said.
The key will be how long Lillard can keep his defensive intensity and attention. As he noted Wednesday, fatigue is a huge factor in playing and maintaining defense. It was at the center of his response to me about his defense after that Sept. 27 practice when he made the block and steal after denying an entry pass.
“I don’t think I’m a bad defender, first of all,’’ Lillard said on Sept. 27. “Effort has never been the issue. It’s just a matter of having a lot of responsibility … sometimes getting tired, sometimes giving in to that fatigue, or that fatigue having an impact on my judgment.
“It’s always this way at the beginning of the season – you are fresh, you are excited, you are sharp,’’ Lillard said. “It’s just a matter of me being able to sustain that and me doing a better job taking care of my body, I guess.’’
Lillard is playing about eight pounds lighter than last season, and has adopted a vegan diet. He hopes his lighter playing weight will help with his explosiveness and with his recovery between games.
But I think the physical aspect is only a fraction of what makes a good defender. It’s the mental aspect – both wanting to defend and studying to defend – that elevates players.
And judging from this preseason, and that Wednesday game in Phoenix in particular, it appears Lillard is making headway on the mental approach to his defense.
“It’s trying to stay ahead of the curve, watching film, continuing to understand what the other team are trying to do so I can stay a step ahead and know what’s coming,’’ Lillard said in September. “That’s what better defenders do in the league – they are very familiar with what to expect and what’s to come.’’
Today's Blazers' links:
The Blazers on Friday waived three players to trim roster to 14.
The Ringer does its season preview of the Blazers.
Yahoo!'s Shams Charania reports on Blazers not offering Jusuf Nurkic an extension.