After every summer workout, Damian Lillard knows what time it is. Exhausted. Legs burning. Soaked in sweat. It’s time for one final drill: An array of 3-point shots so deep that he’s stepping on the halfcourt logo. A source close to Lillard says the Portland star purposely finishes each of his offseason workouts practicing this exact shot when he’s most fatigued. One day, when there’s nothing left in the tank, he’d have it ready.
That day came Tuesday night. Lillard, in his 45th minute on the floor, eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder with a historic 37-footer over an outstretched Paul George at the buzzer, making him a perfect 5-for-5 in the series on shots at least 30 feet away from the basket. Once upon a time, these shots would get players benched. George himself said after the game, “It was a bad shot.” Not for Lillard. As we’ve chronicled all season in this space, Lillard is comfortable from way out there, making 39 percent of these 30-foot moon shots on the season. It’s gotten to the point where they’re selling “Logo Lillard” tees.
The Thunder tried everything to not let Lillard shoot -- double-teams, traps, a 6-foot-8 Defensive Player of the Year candidate -- but it didn’t work. Lillard was pulling up from just about everywhere inside halfcourt and rendering the Thunder’s defense obsolete. How do you defend that?
We used to talk this way about Russell Westbrook. But the NBA has evolved so quickly, it left Westbrook behind. For the third straight season, Westbrook shot his way out of the first round of the playoffs, inefficiently and excessively. The Blazers knew Westbrook’s lack of range would eventually get the best of him. Coaches pleaded “Let Russ Shoot,” and Westbrook capitulated.
The NBA still doesn’t know what to do with guys like Lillard, but they know what to do with Westbrook. More than ever, the NBA is being separated by guys who can shoot and guys who can’t.
Westbrook is a rebel to his core. His Nike catchphrase is “Why not?,” after all. The Mountain Dew pitchman openly says he doesn’t care what people think. He plays like the turbo button is stuck in the on position, and once played with a broken face that left him with a crater in his cheek that could fit a golf ball.
But that rebellious attitude is getting the worst of him. For the third straight postseason, Westbrook’s shooting percentages were in the thirties. Worse, he hasn’t won a road playoff game since Kevin Durant left in 2016. The Blazers were giving him so much space on the perimeter, you could park a car between him and his defender. The Thunder trapped Lillard with multiple defenders on the perimeter, but the Blazers effectively trapped Westbrook with zero defenders. The strategy worked. In this series, Westbrook shot 27.6 percent on mid-range jumpers and 32.4 percent on 3-pointers.
Normally, Westbrook could counter the Rajon Rondo treatment with sheer athleticism. But it’s fair to question if he has the same bounce he once did. In September, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and struggled to regain his rhythm after missing the preseason. It’s the same knee that required three surgeries in a nine-month span earlier in his career. He still averaged a triple-double in 2018-19, but his true-shooting percentage of 50.1 percent marked his lowest figure since 2009-10 and it’s declined in each of the last three seasons.
League executives and coaches have long wondered how Westbrook, who turns 31 years old in November, and his wrecking-ball game would age without a reliable jumper in today’s NBA. As this series against Portland so clearly underlined, it doesn’t look promising.
In this series, Westbrook struggled to get to the rack and finish at a high level. He missed over half his layups, making just 48.8 percent of his shots at the rim (league average is about 60 percent). Westbrook finished with zero dunks in the series and his transition efficiency ranked dead-last among players with at least 20 transition plays, per NBA.com tracking. Normally, we could chalk that up to small sample size, but Westbrook ranked last in transition efficiency in the regular season among the 27 players with at least 250 transition plays. This is more than a blip.
Westbrook used to compensate for his low-percentage shots with elite foul-drawing ability, barreling into defenders and routinely drawing a whistle. In the 2017-18 playoffs, Westbrook averaged 14.0 free-throws per game. Last year, that rate fell to 6.7 trips, down to just 5.2 this postseason.
With analytics emphasized more than ever, points are becoming harder to come by for Westbrook. He’s dunking less, getting to the foul line less and missing more layups than he makes. These are all the markings of a player either in decline or in the wrong era, perhaps both. George’s arrival was supposed to weed out Westbrook’s most inefficient shots and make him more effective. But the opposite has happened: George’s efficient shot has only made Westbrook’s weaknesses more glaring.
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Lillard is not equipped with Westbrook’s turbo-boosters. Listed at 6-foot-3 and less than 200 pounds, Lillard is one of the smaller players in the NBA. Often times in this series, Westbrook gave Lillard the “rock the baby” gesture aimed to belittle Lillard.
"Yeah, you got little kids, you got little babies, put 'em to sleep," Westbrook told ESPN in October. "That's what happens. Little guards, you gotta rock 'em."
Lillard doesn’t overwhelm with his size. In fact, he was equally inefficient at the rim as Westbrook, shooting 47.4 percent on his 38 attempts in the restricted area. But Lillard has a counter.
The difference is that Lillard has put in long hours behind closed doors and developed a knockdown jumper in case he can’t get to the rim as easily as he used to. In this series, Lillard made 48.1 percent of his 3-pointers and was a mind-numbing 10-of-15 from 28 feet and beyond. It’s something you can’t readily defend, as George found out the hard way.
Lillard was facing a nearly impossible task there in the closing seconds: Find a good shot against George. These moments are extremely difficult to begin with. Potential go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds in the last five postseasons have gone in only 26 percent of the time (17-of-64), according to data from Basketball Reference. That was the baseline from which Lillard was working. Out of nowhere, he created a shot he has made nearly 40 percent this season.
That range has made Lillard a lethal player all season. ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, which estimates player on-court impact, tells us that Lillard generated the fifth-most wins in the NBA this season. The Blazers boasted the third most-efficient offense while the Thunder ranked 16th. It’s much easier to build a healthy offense around guys like Lillard.
Lillard’s long-range jumper serves like David’s slingshot in a game of goliaths. With diminutive ball-handlers like Lillard, Trae Young and Stephen Curry bombing away from deep, it’s easy to see how this might be the future of the NBA. This season, a record-breaking total of 1,008 shots were taken from 30 to 40 feet, up from 860 from last season and nearly double the total of 525 from 2016-17, per Basketball Reference. Now, even Brook Lopez shoots them from way out there.
If they didn’t watch it live, millions of young fans around the world woke up this morning and saw what Lillard did. The breathtaking shot, the stoic wave, the meme-ripe stare into the camera. That’s a transcendent play that has the power to influence a generation. While Westbrook fades yet again, Lillard is embodying what’s next.