The layers of Lillard: Behind the statistics is a growing floor general and leader

The layers of Lillard: Behind the statistics is a growing floor general and leader

To the naked eye, there was nothing special earlier this week when Damian Lillard recorded 19 points and 11 assists during the Trail Blazers’ 130-116 victory over Brooklyn.

But to the Blazers’ coaching staff, and to Lillard’s teammates, it was a performance that further entrenched his standing as one of the NBA’s best point guards and the beacon of the Blazers’ franchise.

Nuanced in play calls and personal conferences with teammates, Lillard put on a performance that coach Terry Stotts said showed Lillard’s value beyond traditional statistics.

“With Dame, I think it’s more than scoring,’’ Stotts said. “Everybody is talking about his (26.0 points) scoring … but I think Dame has become more of a floor general, a leader on the court. He does a good job calling out plays, getting people involved, seeing the game. ‘’

It is, in essence, the game behind the game -- subtle decisions and observations NBA point guards have to make in the snap of a finger throughout the course of a game -- often with game-changing consequences hanging in the balance.

So even though it was a rather pedestrian statistical line against the Nets (at least for Lillard) his coaches and teammates said it was yet another example of his brilliance.

And it started on the game’s third play.

**

Ever since his rookie season with the Blazers, Lillard has been schooled, if not hounded, by assistant coach David Vanterpool on the finer points of the point guard craft.

“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to David Vanterpool,’’ Lillard said. “Since I’ve been in the NBA, he’s been a guy who has constantly challenged me to be better – but not just working on my floater or shooting three’s off the dribble - it’s been more of the cerebral part of the game.’’

Vanterpool has led sessions to learn opponents’ plays and play calls. He has instructed Lillard to realize what plays are best to call when the Blazers have the opponent in the penalty. He has emphasized the need to recognize which players are hot or struggling, and when and how to call plays to either keep them going or break out of a slump. And he has taught Lillard how to study teammates’ body language, and understanding the value of rewarding a teammate who is playing hard by feeding him the ball.

“As a point guard and a leader, you have to be able to keep track of everything,’’ Lillard said.

Against Brooklyn, he noticed that on the Blazers’ third offensive play, the Nets changed their pick-and-roll coverage. Usually, he likes to attack early in games, but on this night, after it was clear the Nets were taking away his penetration, he shifted gears.

“In that situation, I have to see what’s going on, read the game, and make the right plays,’’ Lillard said.

Later in the game, as the high-paced Nets kept within striking distance of the Blazers, Lillard decided it was time to change the pace of the game and put pressure on the Nets’ weakness: defense.

“Down the stretch, I just called plays where they had to defend for long possessions,’’ Lillard said. “We were able to wear them out like that.’’

Stotts says Lillard’s play calling this season is his greatest area of growth in being a floor general.

“The first half, particularly first quarter, he has the freedom to make any play calls he wants, and I think he does a good job getting people involved or seeing matchups or whatever it is,’’ Stotts said. “He has extended that throughout the game a little more. At free throws he already knows what he wants to run.’’

In each season, Stotts says he has given Lillard more responsibility and more freedom in calling plays, in part because Lillard has come to know the system so well, but also because Lillard has a special trait: the ability to read and know his teammates so well.

The latest exhibit of that unique trait has been on display the last couple of weeks, after the Blazers acquired who Lillard now fondly refers to as his “big little brother.’’

**

When the Trail Blazers traded Mason Plumlee to Denver, nobody took the news harder than Lillard. He had grown close to the center both on and off the court and on the morning of the trade, Lillard wasn’t shy about saying how stunned and hurt he was by the move.

In Denver, the player traded for Plumlee – 22-year-old Jusuf Nurkic – heard the reports of how Lillard and other Blazers were stung by Plumlee’s departure, and uneasily wondered how he would be received at his new home. 

“I’m pretty sure they liked Mason, and I don’t have anything against that,’’ Nurkic said. “But all I need was a different situation and somebody who wanted me.’’

He found that somebody in Lillard, who immediately approached the big man on his arrival and began tutoring him on plays and welcoming him into the team’s fold.

Now, the two have become somewhat attached, both on and off the court, from review sessions on the court to playful interactions off it.

“I can tell that since he has been here he has gravitated toward me,’’ Lillard said. “At breakfast he will come up and say ‘Ah, Dame Dolla’  … or when we warm up – he’s next to me warming up. It’s like a big, little brother type of thing. It’s kind of funny. But I noticed it.’’

Nurkic seems drawn to Lillard, and goes out of his way to credit Lillard for his help in the transition to Portland and to note how this is the first time he has played with guards the caliber of Lillard and CJ McCollum.

“I mean, I can’t say enough,’’ Nurkic said of how Lillard has embraced him. “His leadership and his ability to motivate a person, it’s amazing. First time I’ve had someone like that who can impact my game.’’

While Stotts noted Lillard’s play calling in the Brooklyn game, Vanterpool was noticing another facet of Lillard’s leadership. He said he couldn’t help but notice Lillard wrapping his arm around Nurkic and explaining a mix up on pick-and-roll defense as the two walked to the sidelines during a timeout.

“It was a timeout so I could hear what Dame was saying – and he was saying – ‘Don’t worry about it, but you have to know that these guys are here, and this is what we want you to do,’’’ Vanterpool said. “Just him taking the time to talk him through that … it shows the way he has embraced him. I don’t know if people have seen it, Dame walking off the court with his arm around him, talking to him. He has embraced him in such a fashion – and honestly, everybody on this team loved Mason Plumlee – but when they see Damian embrace Jusuf, you have to embrace him, too. I mean, our guys want to, but if they didn’t, they still would because our leader is embracing and helping pick him up.’’

Lillard said he remembers the play and the situation – a side pick-and-roll where the Blazers typically want to funnel the ball handler toward the sideline. Nurkic wasn’t familiar with the Blazers approach, so Lillard said it was only natural that he point it out.

“I’m always going to do stuff like that, so we can nip it in the bud,’’ Lillard said. “And he understood. The next couple of times they ran that, he was able to figure it out and we stopped them.’’

Lillard said his embrace of Nurkic is rooted in knowing how much the center can help the Blazers, the need to move on from Plumlee, and from his own experience of knowing the value of being valued.

“I love Mase to death -- as a friend and a teammate -- I loved playing with him and I still do,’’ Lillard said. “I still follow Mase and have nothing but love for him. But he is not coming back. So I can’t sit here and be like, ‘Aw, man we traded Mason.’ We traded him for a really good player. I think what he brings to table – being able to score form the block and make plays from the block and how physical he is, and how much he cares – he cares about winning and what he brings to the team gives us a really good chance to win. You have no choice but to accept that – and he is a good dude and he is young.’’

Nurkic’s arrival also made Lillard think back to when he was a youngster on the Blazers.

“Being older than he is, it’s important for me to embrace him,’’ Lillard said. “I know when I was younger I wanted LA (LaMarcus Aldridge) to embrace me and put his arm around me and show me the way and … be riding with me. It was important for me to let him know that right away. Whether that’s conversation between us, or me coaching him up on the floor, making sure he gets ball on the block in transition, or getting him the ball. And also respecting what he wants out of me.’’

**

So in the end, what could look like a rather ho-hum 19-point, 11-assist night against Brooklyn was instead a layered performance of heady adjustments, reasoned play-calling and proactive coaching of teammates by Lillard.

Or in other words, a masterpiece of leadership and court savvy, which Vanterpool says only strengthens the living legend of Lillard.

“I have already told him he is going to go down as the best Blazer in history, in my opinion,’’ Vanterpool said. “I told him he is going to break all the stats and records and all that stuff, and to keep doing what he does, but also, become a great person. And he is doing that. He is becoming the type of person the company, the organization, and the fans can be proud of. And that’s going to mean even more than all the stats.’’

Everybody is talking about Anfernee Simons' offense, but what about his defense?

usatsi_13638112.jpg
USA Today Images

Everybody is talking about Anfernee Simons' offense, but what about his defense?

SACRAMENTO -- Trail Blazer guard Anfernee Simons is already known as an offensive weapon, a knockdown shooter, and a multiple scoring threat.

The second-year player is averaging 11.9 points, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from long distance.

But, it isn’t his shooting that’s on his brain these days.

Simons still thinks about that shot Kyrie Irving made over him last Friday night. The 20-year-old discussed how he’s been feeling about his defense thus far this season at Tuesday morning’s shootaround.  

“I think it’s been alright, except when Kyrie hit that shot on me… I’m still thinking about that one, but I think it’s been alright. I think I can get better at it,” Simons said.

Irving was able to hit a tough fadeaway jumper over Simons to put Brooklyn up five with 17.8 seconds remaining in last Friday night’s 119-115 loss to the Nets.

Simons’ defensive pressure on Irving did not go unnoticed by the Blazers floor general.

“He’s fearless,” Damian Lillard said after shootaround. “A lot of times when we talk about players being fearless, it’s like you think about taking a big shot or stepping up in that way, but, I mean, it’s just being able to go out there and compete against the best and he was lined up against one of the best, and he wasn’t afraid, and there wasn’t an option, and that’s the kind of person and player he is.”

“He’s also [been] going against me and CJ [McCollum] in practice for two years, so he’s prepared for it,” Lillard added.

The Blazers know what they have in Simons as far as offense goes, but at the other end of the floor, the coaching staff is still working with Ant to get better.

“The coaches have been telling me to make sure I continue to play defense,” Simons said.

Simons feels that he has made a leap from his Summer League defense to now.

“For sure, I think it’s just more knowing your personnel and knowing who you’re guarding I think that helps out a lot too,” Simons said.

McCollum agreed with Lillard that Simons has been “growing” on both ends this season.

“I think he’s done a great job continuing to learn – technique, spacing, you know, how close he should guard certain players, and how to really approach the game. I think he’s got a lot of practice in guarding Dame and I these last couple of years, learning a lot of tricks offensively and defensively to where it helps him kind of maneuvering screens. He’s growing daily. He’s very talented offensively, but he has the tools to be a really good defender as well,” McCollum said.

“We all guard each other so we’re constantly learning,"  McCollum added.

The Blazers are looking to keep their momentum going after Sunday night’s win over the Hawks as Portland takes on Sacramento.

Portland’s trio of guards will continue to learn about themselves as they take on a Kings team who is without their leader in De’Aaron Fox. Fox is dealing with a left ankle sprain.

The Blazers and Kings tip-off at 7pm tonight. You can watch all the action on NBC Sports Northwest, the Official Network of the Portland Trail Blazers and you can stream the game on our website or by downloading the MyTeams app!

Headstrong with Damian Lillard: Being under a microscope

Headstrong with Damian Lillard: Being under a microscope

Nobody in a Trail Blazer uniform carries as much pressure around on his shoulders every day than Damian Lillard. Not only is he his team’s best player, its perennial all-star, its captain and leader – on and off the court – but he’s the face of this city’s most important sports franchise and one of its most visible businesses.

And he’s handled it all with quiet grace.

Certainly, scoring 60 points in a game – a franchise record – isn’t easy, but it’s probably not as difficult as knowing that your every move, every word and every gesture (how about waving bye-bye to the Oklahoma City Thunder last year in the playoffs after breaking their hearts with a long-distance three-point shot?) is analyzed, broken down and discussed not only during the season, but all summer, too.

He understands the situation and, most important, prepares for it.

“The mental side is where the challenge is,” he says in the accompanying video. “You’ve got to prepare yourself on that side, as well, with having clarity. Having your life be as pure as possible, dealing with your issues. There are so many distractions and things that come along with being a professional athlete that it can cause issues. And it’s hard to deal with. And mentally, that’s where you break down and have trouble facilitating and dealing with those things outside of the game.”

Lillard talks about surrounding himself with people he loves and those he can trust – a support system – that helps him survive the mental side of the game. You can watch the full video above. 

How to watch, stream Portland at Sacramento tonight at 7pm

usatsi_13570037.jpg
USA Today Images

How to watch, stream Portland at Sacramento tonight at 7pm

The Trail Blazers hit the road for a quick one-game trip tonight in Sacramento. It’s the second of four meetings between the Blazers and Kings. Tip-off is set for 7pm. 

Portland leads the series 1-0 after beating Sacramento on the road, 122-112, on October 25th. It was a 37-point third-quarter for the Blazers that made the difference. A big reason for the uptick in points was the Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside connection.

Rodney Hood (back spasms) is listed as probable vs. the Kings. Hood played in just six minutes of action in Friday night’s loss to the Nets due to back spasms. He didn’t suit up on Sunday night against the Atlanta Hawks.

You can watch the game on NBC Sports Northwest, the Official Network of the Portland Trail Blazers and you can stream the game on our website or by downloading the MyTeams app!

And, have you heard about Blazers Pass?

You can get 15 live Trail Blazers games, pre and postgame shows, and on-demand full-game replays with Blazers Pass! (Only available to fans located in Blazers Territory, pursuant to NBA rules and agreements. No TV provider required. Subscription Period: November 4, 2019 - April 16, 2020. Subscription auto-renews prior to start of next season.)

Don't miss any of the coverage of tonight's game:

4:30pm Blazers Game Day with Chad Doing

6:00pm Blazers Warm-Up

6:30pm Trail Blazers Pregame Show

7:00pm Trail Blazers vs. Kings

After the game catch Blazers Outsiders with hosts Joe Simons and Dan Marang!

And, full coverage of the game from Dwight JaynesJamie Hudson and our digital team. Follow us on social throughout the night for the latest updates. 

QUOTABLES

“It’s feeling better, it’s just locked up right now. It’s getting better with a lot of treatment. I’m getting treatment around the clock, and hopefully it’ll get better day by day so I can get back out there.” – Rodney Hood (back spasms) gave a health update after Sunday’s win over Atlanta

Zach Collins back at Blazer practice... the latest post-surgery update

Zach Collins back at Blazer practice... the latest post-surgery update

When the door opened for the media to enter the gym at the Trail Blazer practice facility Monday, there was a surprise spectator watching practice on a sideline bench.

Zach Collins, fresh off his surgery last week to repair damage in his left labrum, was back.

He said he is feeling better and, as expected, his left arm was in a sling.

“They said I could probably take (the sling) off when I’m home, hopefully next week,” Collins said. “But if I’m out in public, I still have to wear it. The worst part is when I sleep. I always sleep on my side and for some reason, at night all that pain comes back. The last couple of nights were a lot better. I’ve been almost pain free.

“But when I sleep I have to have everything right,” he said. “Quiet and dark. I’ve been waking up about every hour.”

And for right now, the up-to-the-minute update on Collins’ condition is simply:

He’s working on sleeping on his back.

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum lead NBA in minutes played -- is that sustainable?

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum lead NBA in minutes played -- is that sustainable?

Interesting to look at the top of the NBA leaderboard for minutes played today and find the Trail Blazer backcourt sitting at No. 1 and No. 2.

Damian Lillard is averaging 38.6 minutes per game and CJ McCollum is playing 37.7 – higher than anyone else in the league.

Is everybody happy with that? Are there concerns in this era of load management?

“I’m a little bit old-school,” Coach Terry Stotts said. “There is going to be somebody to lead the league in minutes played. But if we hadn’t gone to overtime (Sunday night), Dame would have been at 39 minutes. To me, two guys in their prime can average 38 minutes and be fine. We did a study on how many players over the years averaged 40 minutes a game – Wilt Chamberlain averaged at least 40 minutes a game every year of his career and 48.5 one year. To me, it’s about managing his minutes,” Stotts said. “I’m very aware of Dame’s minutes. He only played 15-something in the first half last night. I like his minutes to be relatively low in case we need to extend his minutes in the second half. To me, managing his minutes – we do that in the course of the game. Today he took the day off.  So, he’s kind of built for it.”

Neither player showed any outward concern about the length of his playing time in games.

“There’s going to come a point where everyone is going to wear down and get tired,” said Lillard, who played in all 82 games and averaged the same 38.6 minutes he’s clocking this season as a rookie and has averaged 36.3 per game through his career. “It turns into a mental thing at that point.”

Can he sustain that load?

“Yes,” he said.

McCollum, annually one of the players who runs the longest distance on the court during a season, believes he and Lillard can sustain those minutes over the long haul.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We take great care of our bodies. We know how to get our rest. It’s a long season but we don’t really have a lot of room for error right now. What’s our record? We have to take care of our bodies, be in shape and sustain a certain accountability to play. It’s a part of the game. This is what I do. I play basketball. My job is to be available. Obviously, we all battle little injuries here and there but it’s your job to take care of it and if you’re able to play, you play. That’s how I was trained.”

For these guys, load management is not a familiar concept.

Damian Lillard's most meaningful jersey swap

Damian Lillard's most meaningful jersey swap

Damian Lillard is no stranger to jersey swaps.

We've seen them before: Postgame jersey swaps show appreciation for a player's long career, for family, collegiate ties. They're symbolic. But, Damian Lillard's jersey swap on Sunday night at the Moda Center after the Trail Blazers overtime win over the Hawks was the possibly the most meaningful one. 

As fans were filing out of the arena, Lillard walked across the court and pulled the jersey off his back. There, he met U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Michael Ramage, who spent three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. 

"He DM'd me on Instagram one day, and it just happened to catch my attention," Lillard told NBCSNW postgame. "I agreed to it."

Jersey swaps are sacred. They're held in great honor. A sign of respect. Lillard last swapped jerseys with Dwyane Wade during his farewell season. So, this one, which occurred on Military Appreciation Night, the day before Veterans Day... 

"It was fitting."

Evan Turner on the Trail Blazers: 'Dame always figures it out'

Evan Turner on the Trail Blazers: 'Dame always figures it out'

If anyone understands what it’s like to have a rocky adjustment with the Trail Blazers it’s Evan Turner, the now Atlanta Hawks wing, who spent the past three seasons going through his own ups and downs in Portland.

Turner, who sat out on Sunday with an Achilles injury, said he has watched the Blazers a “decent amount” in the early stages of the season and while he understands that fans might be panicking about a less than ideal start to the year, he doesn’t think it’s warranted.

“It’s literally not anything to fret over,” he said.

The Blazers started 12-14 in Turner’s first season in Portland in 2016-17 and opened the following season at 6-6 before surging to the third seed in the Western Conference playoffs. So when Turner saw this iteration of Blazers struggle out of the gates, it didn’t raise much concern.

“It’s a lot of new guys in the locker room,” Turner said. “So they’re adjusting to how you do things. The core, the focal point are the two guards so you have to really get acclimated and find your way around how you can make an impact the best way you can.”

Turner isn’t one to insincerely butter up his former team. He is refreshingly honest, the type of player who will tell reporters the truth to a fault. If he thought this team was bad, it would be in the headline. Instead he insisted this team will be fine. So what is inspiring Turner about the Blazers who needed an overtime win Sunday to run their record to 4-6 on the season?

Chiefly it’s Anfernee Simons, the 20-year-old guard who scored 20 points against the Hawks, and is averaging just shy of twelve points a game in his second season.

“I thought he was going to hit his stride like this eventually but I didn’t know it’d be this quick. It’s unreal. He will be very, very, very, very, very, very, very good,” Turner said, giving his seven-very seal of approval.

“I think the thing I’m noticing about him now is — his confidence wavered sometimes in and out. Like even in the summer he’d have those big games and stuff. He had like 35 and 10 (at summer league). Now the kid knows he’s got it, and you could see it on the court (Sunday) where he went off and Dame and CJ and the coaches were letting him rock out. I think it’s obvious.”

Turner and Simons developed a close bond last season and Turner was one of the first Blazer veterans to confidently proclaim that Simons was going to be an impact player in the NBA. But Turner’s Blazer optimism extends beyond his admiration for their promising youngster. He has seen enough Lillard, his good friend, up close to hit pause on the skepticism.

“If three games go a different way, they’re 7-3, and nobody’d be whining, right?," Turner said. "I think they’ll be fine. Dame always figures it out."

Sunday wasn’t a perfect game. The Blazer looked disjointed early and failed to put the Hawks away late, before narrowly avoiding a five-game losing streak in overtime. But to hear Turner tell it: the Blazers are in a good spot, even with the injuries, even with the new parts adjusting to a new system. But for fans still concerned over a 4-6 record and the obvious issues facing the roster, Turner points in one direction: Toward the team’s All-Star point guard.

“He just keeps getting better and better each year,” he said. “I think it’s still early on in the year and the dude is just going to keep being Dame Lillard. He’s going to keep getting better, and you think you’ve already seen the best he has and there’s more. He’s in his prime and he’s flourishing.”

The Morning After: Everything you missed from the Trail Blazers first home win

The Morning After: Everything you missed from the Trail Blazers first home win

It was a battle of two teams who have been hit hard with injuries early in the season.

Neither the Trail Blazers nor the Hawks were able to have a comfortable lead... until overtime when it was all Blazers, all the time.

The Blazers were without starting small forward Rodney Hood, who is still dealing with back spasms, but Kent Bazemore stepped up big in place of the injured Hood.

Bazemore was key defensively on Sunday night. He was tasked with the tough assignment of defending Trae Young. Young finished the game 9-of-30 from the field for 35 points. On the other end of the floor, Bazemore was clutch in overtime, hitting not one, but two threes.

Damian Lillard once again led the charge, finishing with 30 points. CJ McCollum added 23 points on the night as the Blazers got the last word, earning them their first home victory in four games at Moda Center.

QUOTABLES:

Hood gave an update on his back injury:

It’s feeling better, it’s just locked up right now. It’s getting better with a lot of treatment. I’m getting treatment around the clock, and hopefully it’ll get better day by day so I can get back out there.

Damian Lillard on the play of Kent Bazemore:

Tonight, he had the assignment with Trae Young and (Young) had the ball in his hands pretty much the whole game – chasing him off screens, finding him in transition – just that type of effort is tough.

Evan Turner on the growth of Anfernee Simons:

I thought he was going to hit his stride like this eventually but I didn’t know it’d be this quick. It’s unreal. He will be very, very, very, very, very, very, very good.

BEST OF SOCIAL MEDIA:

LATEST NEWS AND ANALYSIS:

Instant Analysis: It took overtime, but Trail Blazers get first home win of the season

Kent Bazemore gets revenge against the Atlanta Hawks, propels Trail Blazers at both ends of the floor

Injury updates from Rodney Hood

Highlights: Home sweet Moda

CJ McCollum feeling good after hitting big three in OT... Out of his slump?

CJ McCollum feeling good after hitting big three in OT... Out of his slump?

It was a much needed win for the Trail Blazers, who were riding a four-game losing streak entering Sunday night’s game vs. the Hawks.

But not only did the Blazers show up in overtime to put away the Hawks, 124-113, CJ McCollum’s shot also showed up once again. 

There was no bigger shot for McCollum than his only three-pointer of the night, which gave the Blazers a nine-point lead with 1:43 remaining in overtime.

“It’s good to see one go down from distance,” McCollum said postgame. “I had some great looks tonight from three. A lot of in and outs, but a big moment, big game for us, especially since we lost so many in a row. We needed a win at home desperately and I’m thankful we were able to get it.”

McCollum finished with 23 points on 11-of-23 shooting to go along with his eight rebounds and four assists.

Coming into Sunday’s game, the Blazers starting shooting guard had made just three of his last 18 three-pointers. Over his previous five games when he found himself in ‘a slump,’ he was shooting 33.7 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from deep.

McCollum felt like he was in a better rhythm on Sunday night. 

“I felt great. I felt like my balance was good. I was sticking my landing a lot of time on my jumpers, creating enough space to get a shot off -- is something I pride myself on. I think I’ve done that, now the second part is just finishing the play,” McCollum said.

Damian Lillard led the charge offensively once again for the Blazers with 30 points and six assists.  

Lillard mentioned how McCollum is not one to have his confidence waver and that the entire team and coaching staff has and will always have faith in McCollum.

“I think we all know the level of player that he is and our team and coaches have got a thousand percent confidence in him. He’s not a person that you ever have to worry about with confidence and that’s not ever going to stop. It was just good to see him get going and hit some big shots and find his way,” Lillard said.

For the Trail Blazers team captain, he believes that people were making too big of a deal of McCollum’s slow start to the season.

“He started the season struggling shooting the ball and it happens,” Lillard said. “I mentioned after last game that sometimes you have losing streaks in the middle of the season and things like that and it doesn’t seem as bad as it seemed for us. Since it’s the beginning of the season, it seems worse, and I think his situation is similar. He started off kind of struggling shooting the ball, so it’s a bigger deal, but if it just happened in the middle of the season, it’d be like he’s just in a shooting slump and then he’ll come out of it. So I think that’s all it was.”

McCollum and the Blazers will now look to continue their winning ways when they visit the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night.