Of all the elite skills Damian Lillard possesses – his scoring, his leadership, his work ethic – one of the most underrated might be his ability to manage a game.
His floor leadership was on display Friday when Lillard had 17 points and 11 assists, spearheading a night when the Blazers tied their season high with 30 assists during an important 105-96 win over the LA Clippers.
His performance came on the heels of Wednesday’s loss in Memphis, when Lillard didn’t play and the Blazers were held to 15 assists while generating only six shots for center Jusuf Nurkic.
“I thought Damian was terrific with his passing,’’ coach Terry Stotts said after the Clippers’ win. “He found Nurk … someone asked me about getting Nurk more shots before the game, and I think Dame is responsible for getting Nurk some shots.’’
It has become one of the more underrated aspects of Lillard’s game – the way he manages a game from his point guard position. Last season, Stotts continually made note of how smart and measured Lillard had become in running the team, and this season, the sixth-year point guard has become even better.
His mastery of game management, and its value, was never more evident than the juxtaposition between the Memphis and Clippers games.
“It’s taken time for me to get to that point,’’ Lillard said.
Lillard noted that as a rookie he joined a team with established veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, all of whom commanded a certain level of offensive attention.
“I had to kind of manage where, and who hasn’t touched it … what’s going on here … when do I be aggressive?’’ Lillard said. “So I was a rookie trying to figure that out.’’
As the years progressed, so too did Lillard’s understanding of the game, his teammates, and where his own game best fit into that.
That experience and knowledge was glaringly absent from the Memphis game, when Lillard flew home to be present for the birth of his son. The Blazers never got Nurkic on track inside and had several disorganized plays down the stretch of the disappointing loss.
After that game, Shabazz Napier, who started in place of Lillard, took ownership. He said he noticed during the game that Nurkic needed more touches, and lamented afterward that he wasn’t able to make it happen. Meanwhile, CJ McCollum, who also ran some point guard, stared blankly when asked if Nurkic should have been more involved.
Lillard watched the Memphis game from Portland, and said he didn’t think the lack of touches from Nurkic was why the team lost. But he did think the team could have been more focused in how they attacked late in the game.
“I have had more time than anybody else in here to just learn and keep track of everything,’’ Lillard said. “How many team fouls do they have? What play have they called the most? What play is working for us? How many timeouts do they have, do we have?
“There are so many things to keep track of that allows you to control a game, to manipulate a game that I’ve had a lot of experience in,’’ said Lillard, who is averaging 6.6 assists this season, the second highest average of his career.
Nurkic, for one, notices. One game after getting six shots without Lillard in the lineup, Nurkic on Friday had a team-high 17 shots against the Clippers.
“We understand each other, the game we have,’’ Nurkic said. “Every possession we already know where we are going to be and how we going to play. When we look at each other, we already know what we are going to do … He just reads the game. It makes it easier for us. ‘’