SALT LAKE CITY – If anything can be said with confidence after this Trail Blazers preseason, it is this: Damian Lillard is headed for another standout season.
The latest assurance came Wednesday in Salt Lake City when Lillard put on a show during the Blazers’ 88-84 victory over Utah.
Amid oohs and aahs from the Vivint Arena crowd, Lillard had 27 points in 28 minutes while making 11-of-16 shots. If he wasn’t aggressively driving for layins, he was stroking from the outside. All the while, he seemed to be surgically picking apart the vaunted Jazz defense with an overall vision of the court and precision passing on pick-and-rolls with Mason Plumlee.
“Tonight he had 27 points, but it was Chris Paul-esque the way he controlled the game,’’ said Blazers assistant David Vanterpool, who works extensively with Lillard. “The game happened the way he wanted it to happen. It’s been a process in getting him to have that kind of vision, but he has it.’’
Lillard this preseason is averaging 19 points in 25 minutes while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from three-point range.
Throughout the preseason, Lillard has remarked how the game has slowed down for him, allowing him to both anticipate and identify defenses. Combined with his ramped up shooting routine, which he continues to exercise after practices and before games, Lillard is playing with an even greater confidence than his previous four seasons.
But perhaps most important, Lillard says, is his feet are pain free after enduring a nagging bout with plantar fasciitis last season. The foot injury, which originated in his left heel, surfaced in December, forcing him to miss seven games and play the rest of the season hindered.
“My feet haven’t been healthy since December,’’ Lillard said Wednesday in explaining his explosion off the dribble and rise with his jumper. “I feel good. I couldn’t even run full speed and jump in the playoffs. Now that I finally have my feet under me and it’s pain free, it makes a difference. I can blow by people any time, and I can go full speed and raise up and shoot a jumper. Those are things that were taken away from me.’’
Earlier this preseason, Lillard said he wants to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award this season. It has always been a goal of his, but he says this season, with this team, he feels he has a legitimate shot.
If the preseason is any indication, he might very well be a candidate.
“The way he has played this preseason has really set the tone for our mentality and how we are approaching this season,’’ center Mason Plumlee said.