Lillard's defensive intensity helping shape Blazers in win over 76ers
The start of the 2021-22 season has been a little less than stellar for Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard.
However, he broke out for 39 points Saturday night, Nov. 20, against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Moda Center.
But what might have been more impressive for the guard is his three blocks on the night.
That defensive intensity from the Blazers leader was an adjustment at first, but with an all-around performance against the 76ers, Lillard might be getting into a new groove.
"I came into the season at the beginning really challenging myself to be better defensively and I think I have," Lillard said. "I think I've had a great start defensively in isolation situations, on the post, getting over pick and rolls, everything.
"Obviously that's going to make it a little bit harder offensively, you're going to be a little bit more tired, a little bit more beat up."
Lillard certainly didn't look tired Saturday as Portland took a lead in the first quarter and never gave it back, despite plenty of runs from Philly.
Down 18 in the second half, the 76ers were able to cut the Blazers' lead down to two in the fourth quarter, but the defense stepped up continually to keep Philly at bay.
Gonna be a no from Dame pic.twitter.com/GCXuZm8N1q— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) November 21, 2021
"When you guard like that, it wears you down, and I thought a lot of times early in the season, his (Lillard) shot is off, he's hitting front rim. That's legs," Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said. "I think he's committed to really competing on the defensive end and that mentality has permeated through the rest of the guys.
"It makes everybody else step up when your best player is at that level of commitment."
When Lillard wasn't blocking shots on defense, he was getting to the rim on offense. He attempted 14 free throws on the night and hit all of them to go along with a 5 for 13 night from deep and 10 for 21 from the floor.
DAME FROM TYGH VALLEY pic.twitter.com/7p5mknFQyf— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) November 21, 2021
Still, the 76ers wouldn't go away, making it 97-95 Blazers early into the fourth.
Normal Powell responded quickly with a layup, followed by a block from Robert Covington that led to a bucket from Jusuf Nurkic to push the lead up to six at 101-95.
Powell finished with 17 points, while Nurkic had 11 points and 11 boards.
"He's our leader, so when a guy like him can carry the offensive load and then also bring the effort on defense, it kind of makes us hold ourselves accountable," Nassir Little said of Lillard's defensive efforts. "Just like he does with everything, man, he leads us and we follow that and it helped us win tonight."
Like most things with this year's Blazers team, Lillard stepping up his defensive game is an adjustment and something new to get used to.
Now 17 games in, sitting at 9-8 and on a four-game win streak, Lillard and his squad are starting to settle into what it takes defensively to be a top-tier team.
"I am just getting used to having to close out, close the space, guard one-on-one, be the help and meet guys at the rim, stuff like that," Lillard said. "Any time you have something new that you're doing, completely new coaching staff, new schemes, it's going to take time to adjust to it, and I think that's normal."
Portland, which extended its league best home record to 8-1, gets one more at Moda to wrap up the four-game home stand.
The Trail Blazers will host the Denver Nuggets at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 23, looking to avenge not only a Nov. 14 loss in Denver, but get back at the team that eliminated Portland last postseason.
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