'Indescribable' Lillard does it again
We're witnessing something extraordinary.
It doesn't take a basketball expert to figure that one out.
Over a six-game period, Damian Lillard is playing the game at a level few have ever reached.
"It's indescribable," teammate Carmelo Anthony said after Lillard scored 51 points to lift the Trail Blazers past Utah 124-107 Saturday night at Moda Center. "I don't think we've ever seen anything like this. I mean, we've seen great basketball. We've seen guys score in different fashions. But what he's doing, we haven't seen it in a long time."
Over the six-game stretch — Portland (23-27) has won five of them — the five-time All-Star point guard has put up video game numbers. He is averaging 48.8 points, 10.2 assists and 7.2 rebounds while shooting .548 from the field, .568 from 3-point range and .923 from the free-throw line.
In order, Lillard has scored 61, 47, 50, 36, 48 and 51 points. In those games, his assists have run from seven to 12.
"To consistently score like this and be this effective passing and scoring — it's pretty unbelievable," teammate Trevor Ariza said.
Indeed. The Western Conference Player of the Month for January (OK, I'm guessing) is already working on February.
If he continues at this pace, Lillard will be a candidate for first-team All-NBA at season's end. And perhaps even in the discussion for Most Valuable Player, of which Moda Center denizens — who have serenaded him with "MVP!" chants through the streak — would surely approve.
Lillard has made at least six 3-pointers in each of the six games, an NBA record. He has averaged 10 made free throws. On Saturday, he dished out 12 assists with only one turnover despite constant pressure from Utah defenders.
"He is playing at a level where you have to react to him and what he's doing," Utah coach Quin Snyder said after the Jazz (32-17) suffered their fourth straight loss. "We just didn't execute the things we were wanting to do. There were times in the game when we did, and (the Blazers) still scored.
"When you play a player like that, you have to bring your level up to that. Tonight, he scored, and he had assists. He was able to do whatever he wanted."
How often has Snyder seen an NBA player perform at the level Lillard is exhibiting?
"Not very often," the Utah coach said. "Tonight resonates, because it just happened to us. You have to try to do something to slow him down, and right now, his ability to attack is better than (opponents') ability to execute defensively against him."
Lillard ranks third in the league in scoring at 29.8 points per game and is sixth in assists at 7.9. Both are on pace for career highs.
"Damian has been showing what a great player he is," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "It starts with how well he's reading the game offensively. The ball is coming off his hands really well shooting the ball. When that happens, it opens up other situations. His passing and his game management often get overlooked because of his shooting ability."
The scoring outbursts are out of necessity, given the Blazers' poor record through the first half.
"It's January, and now February," Stotts said. "We need him to be doing these things. He has taken it upon himself. He is more aggressive earlier in games. He seizes the moment. He's a team guy, and doesn't necessarily want it to be about him, but he knows he's important for us, and he's in a groove."
Lillard is shooting more of the "Logo Lillard" shots than ever. The mere possibility of the deep impacts an opponent.
"A few years ago, just being a 3-point threat opened up things," Stotts said. "Now if you're a 30-foot threat, it creates more space on the court, the defense gets extended, and that opens opportunities."
And suddenly, the worm is turning for the Blazers, who after a half-season in the doldrums are beginning to look like a playoff team. Consecutive wins over Indiana, Houston, the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah — all playoff teams — is proof.
"It's coming together," Lillard said. "We're starting to figure out what works for us. Since we were losing games and everybody was saying, 'Oh, the Blazers,' and talking about us, we've been able to just keep working and keep our heads down.
"It's starting to show with how we compete, how we're playing together, our energy, the swagger we have about us — we're sustaining it and picking up quality wins against playoff teams, really good teams. We just have to keep rolling."
The Jazz came out swinging, making their first five shots from the field and jumping out to a 34-21 lead late in the first quarter. From that point, they were outscored 103-75.
That despite the fact the Blazers landed in Portland in the wee hours Saturday morning after a 127-119 victory over the Lakers on Friday night at Staples Center. The Jazz, meanwhile, flew to Portland Friday and spent the night, waiting for Saturday's game.
"That's as good a back-to-back as you're going to get," Stotts said.
Lillard had plenty of help from Hassan Whiteside, who outplayed Utah's All-Star center, Rudy Gobert, and had another of a long string of impressive performances. Whiteside scored 17 points, grabbed 21 rebounds, blocked three shots and intimidated many other Jazz forays to the hoop.
"Everybody is going to look at the crazy numbers and what I'm doing because that's a story," Lillard said. "But he's getting 20 rebounds, covering up for our defensive mistakes — five, six, seven blocks a game."
Not quite. But Whiteside — whose time as a Blazer could be growing short — leads the NBA with 3.1 blocks per game. He is also third in rebounding (14.1) and sixth in field-goal percentage (.611).
The trade deadline is Thursday. Whiteside is on the final year of a contract that pays him $27.1 million this season. The Blazers won't be able to afford to sign him to a free-agent deal this summer and, with Jusuf Nurkic returning soon, Whiteside will want to play for a team with whom he can be a starter.
Nurkic, incidentally, may not be back in action quite as quickly as hoped. He suffered a mild strain of his right calf — not the leg he broke last season — about a week ago in practice.
"The only setback for that is he has to get that better before he ramps it back up to playing basketball," Stotts said. "It's a setback in that he hasn't been able to do much this last week because of the calf."
There's the possibility Neil Olshey, Portland's president of basketball operations, will be unable to swing a deal for Whiteside by the deadline. If that happens, Whiteside will stay and be an able contributor to the Blazers' playoff drive. After the season, he'll be gone, and a valuable asset for the Blazers with it.
Portland is in ninth place, a game and a half back of No. 8 Memphis (24-25). No. 7 Oklahoma City (30-20) is seven games ahead of the Blazers, but there is time for a stretch run.
"We're finding a groove," Anthony said. "We've stayed the course. It's a long season. Dame's leading us, and we're following his lead. The guys are doing what they have to do to help this team win."
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