After sitting out Portland's preseason home opener with a sore foot on Wednesday, rookie point guard Damian Lillard found himself in a position where his play would be the story no matter what on Friday night, given that he was the only guy who would be making a first impression.
Lillard, who tends to operate, at least in front of the media, in a calm and focused monotone, looked giddy coming down the pregame handshake aisle, raising his arms by his side as if receiving subtle electrical jolts. Hey, the Rose Garden can do that to you. His play wasn't perfect or jaw-dropping, but there were plenty of moments that made you nod your head, or slide forward in your seat, and he seems more prone to seeing a play develop slightly ahead of time rather than to comprehending his surroundings a beat late. This leads, generally, to more excitement and fewer trouble spots.
"He continues to grow," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "That's probably the most comfortable I've seen him in a full game tonight."
"It felt good, I thought it went well," Lillard said of his debut, in a video interview with CSNNW.com. "I thought we executed on offense pretty well. I Thought we competed and got better and there's still a lot of things we can take from it."
Lillard's comfort factor was akin to what he showed at Summer League, only instead of no-namers he was going against Stephen Curry and Jarrett Jack, a potential fringe star (if you could go to Germany to get blood-spinning work done on your ankles) and a very capable backup, respectively. He hung with both, finishing with 15 points, seven assists, two rebounds, and just one turnover on 5-for-12 shooting.
There were a number of standout sequences. The most positive indicator was his ability to generate clean looks for his jumpers and then shoot them with confidence. Like counting sheep, you could probably put yourself to sleep by trying to list off all the point guards that have come through Portland in recent years who didn't really, truly trust their stroke. Lillard doesn't have that problem; better yet, he's not a chucker either.
Refining his shot selection -- turning 18-foot jumpers into 15-foot jumpers, using his screens to create short threes instead of long twos -- will be the process to watch over the next 6-to-12 months. But that development is a step, not a leap, and he will have plenty of possessions, starting immediately, to work through the kinks.
He has the difficult stuff in the high screen-and-rolls down fairly well. His two-man game instincts are solid, and he's getting a sense for how, where and when forward LaMarcus Aldridge likes passes on the pick-and-pops. Alrdridge finished with 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting and the pair looked like a legit two-headed monster at times, rather than a guard who the defense knew wasn't going to pass or a big who the defense knew was getting the ball no matter what. That balanced combination is how shooters get open in the corner; that combination will be the elixir that Stotts turns to time and again this season.
Lillard scored from the top using one screen and, later, a set of two staggered screens. On the second sequence, he moved into space and took his shot so confidently that defenses are likely to immediately adjust. "You can't give him that," someone important is muttering in a dark video room somewhere as you read this.
Plays towards the basket proved profitable too. Going his preferred direction off the dribble, left, Lillard cut baseline and then lifted off, finishing the drive with an up-and-under right-handed lay-up on the far side. It was a complicated play that his skill level turned into a high-percentage look. Another dribble attack found him completing a lay-up going to his right after hanging in the air for an extra beat.
The passes were there too, none drawing as much appreciation as a sweet look to Nicolas Batum for a finish at the rim. Highlight dimes will not define his success and aren't likely to be a clockwork occurrence. This season will be judged on his ability to master the routine pick-and-roll reads, find the open man late in the shot clock and reward his teammates when they cut off the ball or work hard through screens to get open. Lillard is facing a mental burden that not every point guard needs to deal with because of the composition of this roster; so few of his teammates can legitimately create their own offense that the team's overall offensive efficiency will rely very heavily on his space-creating, vision and timing.
An area to watch against teams with better interior defenses than the Warriors (there are a lot of them) is how successful Lillard is in producing points in traffic. He drew foul shots on one drive in which his idea was to go up and over the defense; his vertical explosiveness simply isn't at the level of elite NBA point guards, and the idea ended with drawn contact but not a spectacular poster or mid-air adjustment for a finish. How big of an issue this winds up being likely depends on how well Lillard's jump-shooting holds up as the defensive pressure increases over the course of a season. The less he feels he needs to press, the less he'll find himself stuck in the air looking for calls or on the wrong side of blocked shots.
Defensively, his youth was exposed by Jack on one occasion, when he got dinged for reaching when Jack drew a whistle with a classic swipe-through. Another time, Blazers forward Victor Claver took a shot to the face and asked out of the game during life action; Stotts motioned to Lillard to intentionally foul to accommodate Claver but Lillard didn't recognize the situation, and the resulting play wound up giving the Warriors two free throws unnecessarily.
I'll confess: it's difficult at this moment to evaluate his defensive abilities past that because the easiest player to compare him to, Nolan Smith, rarely looks like an NBA player on that end. Suffice it to say, Lillard does a significantly better job than Smith in staying with his man off the dribble, understanding his opponent's desires and goals on a given possession, maintaining his balance, moving laterally, dealing with picks, and contesting shots. More data needed here.
In sum, Lillard's home debut was pleasant. The Blazers will take a 7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio every day and twice on Sundays, he managed to score well enough without shooting the lights out, and he was in command of his emotions on a night that could easily have seen him jumpy, anxious to please, or simply nervous. Perhaps those feelings will come out on Halloween. Perhaps not.
The major non-Lillard development on Friday came with Stotts playing essentially an 8-man rotation through three quarters, nine if you count Claver, who played a little over four minutes before leaving the game with his injury. All of Portland's starters played between 20 and 31 minutes and all of the non-roster players -- Demonte Harper, Justin Holiday, Coby Karl, Dallas Lauderdale and Adam Morrison -- did not see any playing time. Stotts said afterwards that he plans to tighten things up even more during the rest of the preseason, so the makings of a rotation could become clear shortly. The early word: there don't appear to be any surprises looming.
If there's one person who should be concerned, it's Luke Babbitt, who played just 8 minutes, all in the garbage time fourth quarter. If Joel Freeland, Victor Claver, Sasha Pavlovic and Jared Jeffries all get off the bench before him again in these final two exhibition games, we should probably launch a trade demand campaign on Babbitt's behalf.
Anyway, Portland's reserves were allowed to play out the fourth quarter, a fact that got interesting as the Blazers went on a little run down the stretch, powered by Pavlovic creating two turnovers and knocking down two late jumpers. Alas, Stotts left Smith in to take the game home, rather than re-insert Lillard and the other starters. Smith capped an atrocious game by shooting 0-for-5 in the fourth quarter, including a potential game-tying three in the final minute that he left approximately six feet short of the rim. He looked to the referees for a deflection call, always a bad sign, but there wasn't one coming.
"Do better!" Smith tweeted after the game, in which he finished with 0 points (on 0-for-6 shooting), 0 assists and 3 turnovers. Do better, indeed.
That mildly disappointing ending, which also happened to deny the crowd Chalupas, only reinforced the lesson of the night. Lillard is the one to watch here, he's the one, beginning now, who sets this team's course.
Random Game Notes
- Stephen Curry departed in the second quarter with a sprained right ankle. Here's what Warriors coach Mark Jackson had to say about Curry's condition after the game. Curry faces an Oct. 31 deadline for a potential contract extension. Horrible timing here, clearly.
- We've heard talk that Stotts' up-tempo offense will allow Portland's mobile bigs (LaMarcus Aldridge, Meyers Leonard and J.J. Hickson) to get out in transition more. I'm not sure Stotts envisioned Aldridge leading a one-man fast break, stopping only briefly to check his rearview mirror to make sure Harrison Barnes couldn't chase him down, before finishing the runout with a dunk. Hey, if preseason games don't count, at least they can be fun.
- Aldridge started another dunk sequence with a block of a Stephen Curry runner that wound up keying a Batum transition slam. The Blazers are certainly looking for those end-to-end plays in the preseason in a way they have only paid lip service to in past seasons.
- Carl Landry, master of all the tricks, was doing his best to intimidate or get into the head of Leonard, who wasn't backing down. Portland's rookie center finished with four points, six rebounds and five fouls in 14 minutes. That's about what his Summer League performance projected for him early in the year.
- Stotts said Claver should be OK after taking the hit to the face. What he meant to say was, "Don't expect the world to stop the next time you take a shot to the schnoz."
- Adam Morrison revealed that he prefers bubble baths to showers and that he doesn't prefer either Beyonce or Rihanna during a timeout jumbotron video. Luke Babbitt famously made that same "neither" call last season. Perhaps by the transitive property that means Morrison is a big fan of gospel music too. (Probably not.)
- Coming out of a timeout, Jarrett Jack came over to bear hug Blazers trainer Jay Jensen from behind. Jensen enjoyed the love. Jack missed just six games combined in his three seasons with the Blazers.
- Will Barton got a real look at initiating the offense as Smith's struggles unfolded. Barton excited the crowd with a drive to the hoop off the dribble and he showed that he can probably be entrusted to serve as a super emergency place-holding point guard. Barton finished with four points and three rebounds in 17 minutes. That Barton is being used as the designated point on offense just speaks again to Smith's shortcomings. Paging Ronnie Price. Come in, Ronnie Price.
- Sign of the night in the crowd: "I just want to be on TV!"
- I realized tonight that I've seen Klay Thompson play in a wacky variety of places: a Seattle charity game, the Las Vegas Lockout league, last year's regular season, 2012 Las Vegas Summer League, and tonight. His linear progression is amazing. He has gotten better and more confident at each step. Tonight: 19 points on 7-for-13 shooting, plus three rebounds, two assists and a steal. He will pull up from anywhere with no remorse. There's almost a Durant-esque quality to him, at least in that one regard.
- Luke Babbitt explained that his shin pads are just for preventative protection against bumps and bruises and not because of any particular injury or style preference. He wanted to make it clear that he's not the only player wearing them.
- Overheard on media row after Smith sent a pass into the stands: "Chad Buchanan should apologize for that pick at center court during halftime of FanFest."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I was pleased with our starters tonight. I thought they came out and set a good tone. It was probably the best they've played together in the preseason. I thought in the third quarter they did the same thing. So that was a positive. We lost a little rhythm to the game in the first half. Guys struggled to score, turnovers. I liked the way the team competed at the end. We were going against some of their main guys and the guys that were in there at the end competed and had a chance to pull it out.
Well the bench didn't play as well. Against Denver, the bench came in and had a big impact on the game and kind of got us out of the hole. Tonight it was the reverse. It was probably a different lineup than I've had with the second unit, but there's ebb and flow of a lot of games. They made their run when our second unit was on the floor.
Damian is, after everybody was talking to him about being more aggressive in the first half, he came out, he continues to grow. That's probably the most comfortable I've seen him for a full game tonight. Meyers competes. He'll make mistakes but he competes, he had a challenge tonight. They had a couple of good smaller forwards, Carl Landry, and it was a difficult night for him defensively. He makes some plays every night that you see the promise that's there. Will has just gotten back on the floor, he has a lot of energy. He's playing hard.
Victor [Claver] and Joel [Freeland] are steady learning the game. I'm pleased with the fact that they've been at it for three weeks. In three weeks, they've all gotten better. They obviously have room to go. It's not going to happen overnight.
He had a rough night tonight because he went 0-for-6. He had a couple of really good moves that he wasn't able to finish. That probably would change the tenor of the opinion of the game. Those two lay-ups go in. He struggled tonight scoring the ball but he still defends, he's quick, he gets by people. This is good for him to go through it, get minutes on the floor. Tonight in crunch time, be able to try to make plays and win games.
Surprised Warriors played starters down the stretch
Every team, every coach, they are coaching their team and doing what they think is best for their team. I can't say it's a surprise. I've got enough on my hands worrying about who I'm going to play.
Health status of Victor Claver after taking shot to face
I believe he's fine. He was icing his nose. I didn't get an update on him. I don't know if he was able to go back in tonight. He probably was. He must be OK because I didn't hear anything.
Increasing Victor Claver's minutes in recent preseason games
I wanted him to have the opportunity to play with the main guys. Be on the floor with the better players. I think that's easier for young guys to be out there with better players, it takes a little pressure off of him. I wanted him to have that opportunity.
Evaluate Victor Claver's play
It was good. I was sorry he got hurt because I thought he looked comfortable, just like he did against Denver. He had energy. I think he has a good feel for the game.
We have to anticipate their players better, anticipate that the screen is coming. Be able to show and disrupt the point guard. They are picking and popping to a clear side so our rotations are sometimes a little slow in reacting. I thought in the second half for the most part our pick and roll defense was decent. In the second half they hurt us more on the post-ups than the pick-and-rolls.
Think about putting starters back in late?
They were all at the minutes I wanted them at. I wanted that group to be able to compete and try to win it. I don't want -- I kind of have minutes where I want them to be. Nic was over 30. Damian was over 30. So that's kind of where I wanted to be.
Stick with same minutes for last two games
No, I'll probably extend them a little bit Monday night.
He looked really good, he looked more comfortable against Denver. I think he's had more of a feel of where the shots are coming. We're playing at a faster pace, we might have been rushing. I think you put tonight's performance that followed up Denver's performance, everybody was concerned about him after three games but now everybody is alright with him. He's got a good rhythm. We're able to move him around in pick-and-rolls, post-ups and elbow isos. Offensively he's been able to do different things rather than just post-up.