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Struggling Blazers guard admits 'I'm not helping my team' but says he can handle it



TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: DAVID BLAIR - Damian Lillard has struggled with his shooting and against the Memphis Grizzlies defense in the first two games of the playoffs.There are plenty of things the Trail Blazers must correct if they are to get back into their first-round playoff series with Memphis in Saturday night's Game 3 at Moda Center.

None bigger, though, than turning around the fortunes of Damian Lillard.

A year ago, Portland's All-Star point guard was dynamite in the playoffs, averaging 22.9 points, 6.5 assists and 5.1 rebounds while shooting .439 from the field and .386 from 3-point range in 11 games. His series-winning trey in Game 6 against Houston stands as a seminal moment in the franchise's 44-year history.

In the first two games of the Memphis series, though, #LillardTime has been totally off the clock.

Lillard has made 10 of 37 shots from the field (.270) and 1 of 11 attempts from 3-point range. In nearly 80 minutes, he has dished out four assists. If the confidence isn't shattered, cracks have been showing everywhere.

"I played really well from start to finish in the playoffs last year," Lillard said Wednesday night after shooting 5 for 16 and scoring 18 points with one assist in Portland's 97-82 loss. "I understand it's not always going to be like that.

"I'm not helping my team right now. I didn't shoot as well as I'd have liked in either of the first two games. I just have to stick with it."

The Grizzlies, Lillard said, "did what they were supposed to. They protected their home floor. That's why you play for the homecourt advantage. They got the best of it the first two games. Now we go back home and we have to try to do the same thing."

In order to move on to the next round of the playoffs, the Blazers must win four of five games -- at least once on the road -- against a Memphis team that is 6-0 against them this season and has prevailed in 11 of their last 12 meetings.

"It's not the first time it's been this way," said Lillard, taking the glass-half-full approach. He's right. Ask the 1977 Trail Blazers, who lost the first two games of the NBA finals in Philadelphia, then marched through the 76ers in four straight to claim the championship.

That's a rare occurrence, though. Over the years, only six percent of teams have climbed out of an 0-2 deficit in a seven-game series to advance.

All the Grizzlies have done is hold serve. If the Blazers do the same in Games 3 and 4, it's a new series going back to Memphis.

"We can't look at the first two and say it's impossible," Lillard said. "We have to keep believing."

That would be easier if Lillard could get back to being Lillard. Memphis has had a lot to do with that, for sure. Mike Conley and Tony Allen have done a good job keeping a body in front of Lillard. On the occasions he is able to penetrate, Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph or Jeff Green are edging over to clog the paint and keep him away from the basket. The slow pace of play has favored the Grizzlies, who have all but shut off the Blazers' fast-break points in the series.

"It's like we like to get teams playing in the mud," Conley said. Or crawling through quicksand.

There are plenty of other holes in the dike for Portland Coach Terry Stotts to plug. The loss of Wesley Matthews -- and to a lesser degree, replacement Arron Afflalo -- at shooting guard has been colossal. Stotts has been left to use CJ McCollum -- who is 4 for 21 shooting in the two games -- or Allen Crabbe, both second-year pros. Neither appears ready for prime time.

Though LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 27.5 points and 13.5 rebounds, Portland's All-Star power forward has made only 20 of 54 shots (.370) from the field. As a team, the Blazers are shooting .360 from the field and .304 (14 for 46) from 3-point range. In Game 2, they had just 11 assists, seven by small forward Nicolas Batum.

The Grizzlies aren't shooting great, either -- .443 and .427 in the two games -- but are dominating at the guard positions. As a team, they have 40 assists with only 14 turnovers.

"We play well when we move the ball," said Conley, who has totaled 34 points and shot 6 for 11 in each of the two games. "When we play (the Blazers), we tend to move the ball, because they pay so much attention to our big guys, it allows our guards to have some space. We get some open shots, and when we knock them down, we're pretty good.

"This team is so unselfish. Marc, Zach -- they sacrificed themselves (Wednesday night). They were setting screens, creating lanes for us to make plays. We were just going with what was working."

Memphis ranked next-to-last in the NBA in 3-pointers made in the regular season with only 5.16 a game, and was 3 for 9 from beyond the arc in Game 1. The Blazers emphasized shutting down the middle in Game 2, which opened the way for the Grizzlies to go 8 for 16 from long distance.

"They're not a high-volume 3-point-shooting team," Lillard said. "Our big thing after Game 1 was to have our defense be tighter, protect the paint better. We made our adjustments, and they shot the ball well from 3. Some of the shots were contested; some open because of (the Blazers' defensive) miscommunication."

Lillard has risen to challenges since his school days in Oakland, Calif. Largely unrecruited, he wound up at Weber State, spending four years at the Big Sky school. He proved doubters wrong by gaining unanimous acclaim as NBA rookie of the year, then earning All-Star honors the past two seasons.

Another enormous challenge is on the horizon. Lillard believes his inner cool and self-confidence will see him through again.

"Last year, when I made the big shots, people would ask, 'How are you calm and able to do that?'" Lillard said. "I always respond, 'I can handle it when things aren't going well.' That's when people are quick to keep you down and talk bad about you.

"That's the way it goes. Things will work out. Everything will turn around. I have no reason to say this is some great amount of adversity. I've been in way worse situations in my life, period.

"But I want to be better for my team. I have to look at what (the Grizzlies) are doing to make things hard for us and try to do better."

Even with his poised exterior, Lillard admits to a good deal of frustration.

"Through these seven games, either we keep playing or we go home," he said. "As a competitor, you want to keep playing. Me being the other All-Star-level player on the team (besides Aldridge), I want to put my best foot forward and make sure the team keeps playing.

"When things don't work out, it's frustrating. But I'm happy I'm a guy with a lot of confidence. I'm going to stay with it. I'm my biggest critic. What people say doesn't bother me as much because I'm thinking about it, trying to figure out how I can do better."

Maybe there will be a solution when Lillard raps out his next "Four-Bar Friday."

If only it were that easy.

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