While much of the glory has been given to Damian Lillard during the Trail Blazers’ 11-game winning streak, a subtle development has emerged on the fringe of the spotlight:
More than ever before, Lillard is trusting his teammates.
And they are delivering.
Lillard’s trust was on full display Thursday during the Blazers’ 113-105 victory over Cleveland, when he made two heady assists in the closing minutes that thwarted a LeBron James-led comeback.
“People during this streak have asked me about leading the charge,’’ Lillard said. “But I keep telling them that I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing unless everybody else was carrying their weight.’’
On Thursday, much of the weight was carried by fellow star CJ McCollum, who scored 29 points, but it was two late-game plays by Al-Farouq Aminu and Evan Turner that illustrates the team’s growth, and Lillard’s trust.
On the heels of a 14-2 run, Cleveland was within 105-102 with just less than three minutes left, which usually triggers that special trait in the Blazers’ point guard known as Lillard Time.
Sensing this, the Cavaliers put James on Lillard, and when Lillard took James to the basket, it drew Jordan Clarkson into the paint. But instead of forcing a shot, Lillard kicked out to Al-Farouq Aminu, who nailed a three-pointer with 2:38 left.
On the next Blazers’ possession, Lillard missed, but the rebound was tapped back to him in the corner with Cleveland’s Kyle Korver in front of him. As Lillard sized up the situation, James came to Korver and indicated he would guard the Blazers’ star.
Inside the Blazers, Turner is hailed as one of the team’s smartest players, and he instantly recognized that with James on Lillard, it meant Korver would be left to guard him.
“Personally, I thought they were trippin’,’’ Turner said. “I was like, this is the best thing that could possibly happen. They are really switching. I mean, Korver is a great player and a great shooter and all that, but I feel great in the post, and over the years I’ve had a decent amount of success against people his size and smaller.’’
So Turner slashed through the lane and immediately established post position on Korver.
Flashback to last season and think of a six-point game, less than two minutes left, in the middle of a playoff push … would Lillard give up the ball there?
“No,’’ Lillard said. “It’s not that I wouldn’t have recognized that play, but I feel like … ET has gotten comfortable and we’ve seen him go to the block and be successful.’’
So instead of taking it upon himself to seal the game, Lillard didn’t hesitate and fed Turner the ball. Turner immediately went to his bread-and-butter and backed Korver down into the paint, where he scored with 1:49 left.
“Very unselfish,’’ Turner said of Lillard. “It was huge. In that part of the game, a critical part, to trust me enough in a mismatch, and be aware of my strength … it was great.’’
Does Turner think Lillard would have done that last season, Turner’s first in Portland?
“I don’t really know,’’ Turner said. “Because I don’t want to take away from Dame. He’s smart and always tries to do the right thing. But I will say, one thing we have been doing great lately is moving the ball.’’
Blazers coach Terry Stotts said he didn't want to read too much into one play, but he liked what he saw late from Lillard.
"That was a sign of trust and recognition,’’ Stotts said.
Lillard says the two late-game plays – part of his nine-assist night - were an illustration of how the Blazers have become a more well-rounded and dependable team. Sure, during this streak he is averaging 31.7 points, and has willed this team to victories at Phoenix and the Lakers, but he no longer feels the burden to do it all himself.
This team, he says, thinks. This team communicates. And this team has different players elevate their play on different nights.
“Us leaning on each other is as big as anything,’’ Lillard said. “We have to lean on each other.’’