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.’’