Blazers

Aaron Gordon 'loves' defending stars, Damian Lillard must make him hate it

Blazers

Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard had one of the best shooting halves you'll see in Game 2 against Denver, scoring 32 first-half points including eight of his first 10 three-pointers.

The eight first-half makes tied an NBA Playoffs record.

"Dame was going crazy in the first half and it almost looked like we didn't have an answer for him," said Aaron Gordon after the win.

Nursing a 12-point lead heading into the third quarter, Denver knew it needed to adjust how it guarded the MVP candidate. The Nuggets offense was rolling but with how Dame was shooting, anything was possible, including an 0-2 hole heading back to Portland.

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Heading into the series, the Nuggets coaching staff had discussed switching Gordon onto Lillard, if need be.

“It's something in the week leading up to Game 1 we had talked about, we were starting him on Norman Powell, Facu Campazzo was on Dame, Austin Rivers was on CJ [McCollum], but going into Game 2, we met this morning, we talked as a staff, 'let's give him [Lillard] different looks.’”

Michael Malone said his coaching staff wanted to give Lillard different looks throughout the game.

"Facu, he brings different looks to the table; he's smaller but he's into you. Austin Rivers has more size," he explained. 

 

But, the Nuggets had a 'break-in-case-of-emergency' fire extinguisher in Gordon. 32 first-half points clearly qualified as an emergency. 

"At halftime, after the 32-point first half, we said 'you know what? Let Aaron Gordon guard him,'" said Malone.

The Arizona product wanted the challenge, especially given his limited offensive role, Gordon can lock in on defense while giving maximum effort every possession. 

I looked at the coaching staff and said, 'I got him.'

Aaron Gordon on guarding Damian Lillard

"That's one of the reasons we brought AG here," explained Malone. "That defensive versatility and obviously, he embraced it. He wanted it and that's the best part about it. This is something Aaron Gordon has been wanting to do and he just made it hard."

Lillard only scored 10 points in the second half, with just one three-pointer.

"I thought Aaron Gordon, second half, you know Damian Lillard in that first [had] 32 points and to hold him to 10 points in that second half and only one made three was critical to us getting that win," said Malone.

For the game, Dame scored 11 points on 10 shooting possessions when defended by the 6'9" defender. 

"Just a bigger defender, taller guy, more athletic, just a bigger body," described Lillard when asked what separates Gordon as a defender. "But I'm used to that. Usually, throughout the regular season, whoever their defensive wing or taller wing is, that's who guards me. Just like the Phoenix game, Mikal Bridges guarded me. Golden State, Kelly Oubre [Jr.] guards me. I'll always adjust when it's a bigger wing, like the adjustment they went to in the second half."

If Gordon starts off on Lillard in Game 3, expect a lot more pick-and-roll at the top of the key or even Terry Stotts calling for Powell to be the screener more to get Campazzo, Rivers or Michael Porter Jr. back onto Dame. 

Lillard had 12 points on five shooting possessions when defended by Campazzo and 10 points on five shooting possessions when defended by Rivers in Game 2. 

Given how well Gordon fared in that second half, he should expect to get the full-game assignment and if his number is called, he'd be hyped from the sound of his postgame media session.

"I love those matchups, man. I really don't care what the matchup is, it could be a one, it could be point guard, it could be a center, I'm here for it all," said Gordon.

Lillard will be more prepared next time.

“I expect it to continue," said Lillard. "But I think just moving around more off of the ball, getting us some more off-ball sets. Usually, bigger guys, they can use their length and athleticism on the ball, but when you start to move around with flares, and pin-downs, and things like that, you can typically get a little bit more space.”

Gordon wasn't the only Nugget to see success defending Dame on Monday. Shaquille Harrison got his number called after a Denver timeout forced by another Lillard three-pointer to cut the lead to four, 65-61, with 1:49 left at halftime. 

 

"We always talked to these players about staying ready, and Shaq Harrison played about one minute and 15 seconds in that first half and had a huge impact," pointed out Malone.

Harrison defended Lillard for three shooting possessions and did not allow a point. On the first possession out of the timeout, Harrison denied Lillard and forced McCollum to go 1-on-1 which resulted in a missed midrange jumper. Portland would never get closer than four again for the remainder of the game, as Denver closed the half on an 8-0 run. 

Don't expect Harrison to play much in the series though. Malone said he did not play in Game 1 because "if you go back and watch the film, you'll see what they did when Shaq was in the game.” Basically, the Blazers ignored him and were able to throw extra bodies at Nikola Jokić and Porter Jr. 

Additionally, Malone knows to not count his eggs before they hatch. One poor half doesn't mean the Nuggets have solved how to contain Lillard. 

"Listen, Dame Lillard is an incredible player, we saw that in that first half. But I think Aaron's size makes it a little bit tougher to get those shots off," he said. "Like I said earlier, 1-1, we're not going to get too excited after this win.”

Gordon echoed that sentiment.

"It’s Damian Lillard, man,” Gordon said. “Everybody in the world knows how great of a scorer he is; how quick he can heat up. We all knew that going into the series. He's going to have spurts like that, we just have to withstand it and really just keep doing us. Once he got hot, we kind of were calling timeouts and got our stuff together and kept running Denver Nuggets’ basketball and withstood the storm."

Game 3 of the Western Conference First Round series tips off at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 27 on NBC Sports NW, the official home of the Portland Trail Blazers.