Erik Spoelstra

Right now, just about the only way to stop Damian Lillard is goaltending

Right now, just about the only way to stop Damian Lillard is goaltending

It doesn’t seem to matter what anybody tries to do in order to stop Damian Lillard right now, it’s not working. Double-teams, triple-teams, small guys, big guys -- whatever.

Lillard went for 33 points Sunday night along with eight assists, four rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot as his Trail Blazers won their seventh out of their last 10 games, a 115-109 triumph over Miami.

During those 10 games, Lillard has scored more than 60 points once, 50 or more points twice, 40 or more points six times and 30 or more points eight times.

He has scored 30 or more in 25 games this season, fourth most in the NBA.

“We did about as good of a job as you can on Lillard,” Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We got the ball out of his hands, which is very hard to do, and then it ended up in Gary Trent’s hards and he made those shots.”

Trent is becoming a big (and sometimes only) Portland weapon off the bench. He hit five of his seven three-pointers and scored 22 points. The other three Trail Blazer players who came on in a reserve role did not score at all.

The 6-2, 195-pound Lillard found himself defended by 6-6, 235-pound Jae Crowder and 6-6, 215-pound Andre Iguodala at times Sunday and they weren’t gentle with him.

But lately, goaltending seems to be the only way to deny Lillard.

Are bigger, stronger defenders who can bump him around more becoming a common practice?

“I think it’s been that way for a while now,” Lillard said. “It’s more obvious on a team like that because they just look bigger and they’ve got so many like-sized guys, it stands out more.

“But I think it’s pretty much been that way for a while now. Small, tall, strong -- I’m a scorer I know how to play, so I’m going to figure out a way to do what I need to do.”

Lillard’s minutes have grown as his scoring has gone up and he’s playing about 39 minutes a game over his last 10. Is that wearing on him?

“I feel good,” he said.

Coach Terry Stotts talked about his team’s toughness -- “both mental and physical” -- and said “I’m proud of our team right now.”

And he’s running out of superlatives for Lillard.

“Dame’s been playing great,” Stotts said. “He does whatever it takes. It’s obvious to everyone what a competitor he is and how important winning and making the playoffs is, and he’s doing whatever it takes.”

A suggestion for the Trail Blazers: Why not try a little more zone defense?

A suggestion for the Trail Blazers: Why not try a little more zone defense?

The Trail Blazers have pulled a zone defense out of their very small bag of tricks recently, using it for just a possession or two in games over the last couple of weeks. They’ve had mixed success with it on a very limited basis.

And I’ve always wondered what would happen if NBA teams really worked on zones – actually practiced them more than a little bit – and put them out there in games more than a few times, so their players could get used to their roles and responsibilities.

And face it, NBA teams playing so many games with little prep time, cannot spend hours getting ready for something your team does that others do not do. You will profit from doing something different.

Toronto has had success this season with all sorts of zones, using what the old timers used to call “junk defenses,” like "box-and-one” and “triangle-and-two.” The Raptors have had the ability to take star players away from their teams by loading up on them with those defenses. Of course, the Raptors have some pretty solid defenders to use in those situations and that matters, too.

But Miami, a zone user over the last few seasons, employed one Wednesday night for a good part of the game and used it to hand the 76ers their first home loss of the season. The Heat used a zone 39 defensive possessions, a full 40 percent of its time on defense:

 

The last time these two teams played in this building, on Nov. 23, the Heat played zone defense on only one possession. That game was uncompetitive, with Philadelphia running Miami out of the building, leading by 20 at halftime and winning by 27.

Wednesday night, though, was a very different story. To combat Embiid's massive size advantage in the middle, the Heat employed a zone on 40% of their defensive possessions -- and held the Sixers to 12-for-32 shooting (38%), including 7-for-21 from 3-point range.

To put that number in context, the Sixers entered Wednesday night having taken 31 shots all season against a zone defense.

On the 59 possessions the Heat played man-to-man defense, the Sixers shot 26-for-58 (45%). More importantly, their average distance from the basket per shot, per Second Spectrum, was 12.3 feet -- compared to 19.7 feet against the zone.

In other words: The Sixers settled for one jumper after another and didn't make enough of them.

Dallas has also done a decent job with zones over the last couple of seasons and I don’t think either Erik Spoelstra or Rick Carlisle are known as dumb coaches. Quite the opposite. And that’s why I’ve wondered this season why the Trail Blazers haven’t experimented more with zones – and not just high-school 2-3 zones but perhaps matchups or something just a bit more sophisticated.

NBA shooters, on a given night, are going to riddle zones from the outside. That’s a given. But on those nights, they’re probably going to do the same thing to man-to-man defenses, particularly if the defensive team doesn’t close out well on long-range shots.

All I’m saying is, for a team that’s undersized, having trouble on the defensive boards and isn’t defending very well, isn’t it worth a try? I know, often it’s difficult to block offensive players off the boards out of a zone… but if zones are taught correctly, rebounders can be shelled off the offensive boards by defenders already put in position to do so.

Hey, just a thought. And there’s no better advice than free advice.

Blazers' vacation hangover leads to loss of "pop" -- and loss of game

Blazers' vacation hangover leads to loss of "pop" -- and loss of game

On second thought, perhaps those five days off were really not such a great thing for the Trail Blazers, after all. Portland players were practically giddy over the five game-free days last week -- and the first three that were practice-free.

But it took Portland three quarters to wake up from its vacation hangover Tuesday night and by the time the Blazers put together a solid effort they were too far behind and couldn't catch up, defeated by the Miami Heat 118-108 in Moda Center Tuesday night.

The Blazers had not played since a win over Utah last Wednesday and practiced only the last two days after three off-days.

They outscored Miami by 24 points from the three-point line and still never led in the game, getting hammered by the Heat’s 54.2 percent shooting, fueled by a barrage of layups and dunks that led to 56 points in the paint.

“For whatever reason, we didn’t seem to have a lot of pop for most of the game,” Portland Coach Terry Stotts said. “I don’t know if it was the five days off or what, but it seemed pretty obvious most of the first three quarters, we just didn’t make the energy plays, whether it was transition, or defensively in the first half, or the extra-effort plays.

“We made a nice run in the second half. It was good to see but, I don’t know, I’m going to just chalk it up to the five days off and hope we bring it better on Thursday (at home vs. San Antonio).”

The Heat handled Portland with relative ease earlier in the season at Miami and Coach Erik Spoelstra was asked what his 25-27 team does against the Trail Blazers that other teams don’t do.

“I don’t know – it’s too small of a sample size,” he said. “You know, it’s only two games. We faced them in the first five games of the year and both teams are a little bit different now.

“I don’t know if anybody is going to watch our game film to try to figure it out. But we’ll take it. We needed this – probably a lot more than they did.”

Maybe, but the season is about to take a nasty turn, schedule-wise, for the Trail Blazers very soon. They have only two more home games in February and they will come in the next week.

Portland has played 30 home games up to now and just 23 on the road. That means only 11 of the final 29 will be at home.

Of particular concern is the post-All-Star Game road trip of seven games in 14 days – against some pretty good teams.

Thus, losing a home game to a team with a sub-.500 record is costly at this point for this group with sights set on a playoff run.

The Heat did a great job of stopping key Trail Blazer players. Jusuf Nurkic made just two of seven shots and played just 22:52. He had five rebounds and didn’t block a shot.

Meanwhile, his counterpart, Hassan Whiteside, made 11 of 12 shots , had 11 rebounds and two blocks.

Damian Lillard made only 5 of 15, missed eight of his 10 shots from distance scored 13 points, albeit with 10 assists.

CJ McCollum led the Trail Blazers with 33 points and made 7 of 14 from three. Jake Layman was again terrific off the bench, scoring 25 to go with eight rebounds.

Dwyane Wade had a retirement-tour highlight, potting 22 points and nine rebounds for the winners.

“From the beginning to the end, I thought we had a good stretch in the beginning of the fourth, but other than that, we just didn’t play well at either end of the floor,” Lillard said. “It’s disappointing to have an opportunity like that – two home games before we hit the road – winnable games and then we come out and just get outplayed,

“They worked harder than us tonight.”

Oh well, maybe his coach said it best:

“I’m going to just chalk it up to the five days off and hope we bring it better on Thursday.”

Spoelstra on Lillard: "That was one incredible performance"

Spoelstra on Lillard: "That was one incredible performance"

How great was Damian Lillard Sunday in Miami against the Heat? Well, I'd try to tell you but I believe it's better to yield to Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra. He's in a much better position to evaluate NBA players than I am and the fact that he's one of the most respected coaches in basketball means his words carry a whole lot more weight than most. Here are some of Spoelstra's post-game remarks, which basically turned into a tribute to Lillard:

"That was one incredible performance. There are less than five players in this league that you have to do something different on your pick-and-roll coverage. Lillard is obviously one of those guys. And once he got it going... there haven't been many shooting performances like that this year in the league. To be able to score, basically 50, on 21 shots on a back-to-back -- on an early back-to-back -- just shows the level of efficiency. He was outstanding.

"You have to give them a heck of a lot of credit. They came in here and took this game. ... Our guys were trying, they were working, but you had a great player who took his game to another level."

That sums it up pretty well. I'd only add one thing: I haven't seen a Portland player put the team on his back like Lillard has since the days of Brandon Roy... or maybe even Clyde Drexler. Sunday's game may have been his best ever as a Blazer -- at a time when his team needed it most.