Late in the Trail Blazers' game Monday evening against the Milwaukee Bucks, a young Blazer guard made a critical mistake that led to the team giving away what had previously looked like a sure win. It was tough to stomach.
Portland had a lead over Milwaukee, 88-87, with just 16 seconds left. Had the ball, too. All they needed to do was absorb a foul, hit a couple free throws and get one last stop, and they were home free. Instead, they inbounded the ball to C.J. McCollum, and bad things happened:
Oof. McCollum gets the ball and instantly finds himself wrapped up in a double team by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Carter-Williams. Instead of taking the foul, he gets tied up in a held-ball situation with Carter-Williams, and seconds later, there's a jump ball. The Bucks get the ball back, they score, and the rest is history.
Here's the twist. The young Blazer guard making the critical mistake on this possession wasn't McCollum - it was Damian Lillard! McCollum's held ball was the immediate cause of the Bucks coming back and winning this game, but you can hardly blame him for that. McCollum played it right. He catches the ball on Al-Farouq Aminu's inbound, and he sees his man, Antetokounmpo, coming after him. He makes the smart play by turning away from Antetokounmpo, concealing the ball and forcing him to foul. Well done. The problem is that MCW is there to mug him from the other side - and that's on Lillard. The Blazer point guard should have been far away, forcing MCW to chase him away from McCollum before the inbound pass even happened. That way, there would have been no double team. No double team, no jump ball, and no jump ball, no loss.
After Lillard gave MCW a free shot at McCollum, the outcome was to be expected. Making plays like this is the Bucks' M.O. They have a lot of weaknesses, but their one strength is using their quickness and length to play aggressive team defense. They swarm, they trap, they force turnovers. It's what they do. It's why spacing is always essential against Milwaukee - that holds true whether you're playing keepaway with 16 seconds left or running your regular halfcourt offense in the second quarter. Always, always, always stay spaced.
Lillard knew this, and that's why he took it so hard when Monday's game ended in a 90-88 loss. According to The Oregonian's Mike Richman, the ending in Milwaukee led to a rare postgame sit-down between Lillard and coach Terry Stotts in the visitors' locker room, in the middle of media availability. Oddly, the two hunched over with their backs to the rest of the room, engaging in a lengthy talk about the loss. Here's what Lillard said they talked about, courtesy of Richman:
"Just the last few plays ... We talked about what we could have done different, basically. On the last play, when C.J. got tied up, my man is the one that tied him up. I probably should've ran further down the court to stay out of the way because that's what we wanted to do ... If I hadn't ... If I would have just kept going out of there, then my man probably wouldn't have been able to make the play on the ball."
This is great reporting - it provides an insider's look behind the scenes at how the Blazers carry themselves in a key moment. You inevitably deal with a lot of adversity when you're building a young team, and little snapshots like this do a lot to illuminate how the Blazers handle that adversity. You read this anecdote and you feel like you understand a little bit better about how the Blazers are learning from tough experiences and evolving.
Having said that, there might be more to this story than just a snapshot. There might be a whole photo album. Let's zoom out and ask a bigger question - what do we think of Lillard and the way he's led this team down the stretch in key moments?
If you dig into the data, you realize pretty quickly - we're only six weeks into the season, and the Blazers have already demonstrated a really, really bad habit of failing to finish out close games.
This, courtesy of basketball-reference, is a bar graph of every Blazers game this season. The green bars are wins; the red ones are losses. You'll notice there's one small green bar on the far left - the Blazers nabbed a close win over Minnesota in the opening week of the season, holding off a late surge from Andrew Wiggins and Kevin Martin to win 106-101. Since then, every time a bar has been short, it's been red. The Blazers this season have lost games by 4, 1, 5, 5, 3, 3, 2 and 5 points. In other words: In their last eight games decided by five points or less, the Blazers are 0-8.
Surely, part of that is luck. A ball bounces this way one time and that way another - a couple of swings of random chance can cost you a game or two. Part of it, too, is difficult opponents. It's easy to give away games when you're facing Memphis, Houston, Chicago, Dallas and Cleveland. But even with both things said, it's troubling. You don't lose eight close games in a row without something to some extent being wrong. And Lillard, as much as I love the guy and hate to knock him, I'm afraid deserves a decent amount of the blame.
This happened 24 hours after the loss in Milwaukee, and while it wasn't quite the same high-leverage situation, I found it equally worrisome. Dame: You shot this ball from 30 feet! There are 87 seconds left in this game, and you're only two possessions down - a quick 3 would be nice, but it's not do-or-die. Be patient, run a play, get a good look and chip away at the lead. Then get a stop. One thing at a time. The immediate 30-footer is a bad idea. That's some Stephen Curry stuff right there, and with all due respect, Dame, you are no Stephen Curry. (Proof, per SportVU data: Curry is shooting 44 percent this season when he fires from 30 feet or more. Lillard's at 22 percent. Not that it really matters - each guy only has 9 attempts. Small samples are fun.)
Lillard's temperament in clutch situations has been all over the map, though. He's not always impulsive. Sometimes, he's actually the opposite:
This one, from two minutes earlier in that Monday Bucks loss, comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. Unlike the Cleveland shot that he fired with 19ish seconds still left on the shot clock, this one comes with about 9 seconds remaining. And it doesn't appear that he tried very hard in the preceding seconds to create a better look, for himself or anyone else. He crosses halfcourt with 16 on the clock, then just sort of stands there, 40 feet from the basket, watching the play unfold. Allen Crabbe comes curling around a C.J. McCollum screen to get open at the top of the key; Lillard is too far away to react or do anything about it. Then he approaches with the seconds ticking down, and he's got both Crabbe and McCollum open on the wings, available either to fire a jumper or make a drive-and-kick play (or dump into the post for Ed Davis). Instead, Lillard just chucks. It's not the shot itself that's disappointing so much as the lack of effort to create a better one.
It's possible that I'm putting too much of the blame for the Blazers' crunch-time struggles on Lillard. After all, there are four other guys on the floor with him, and it's not as though they're doing very much to help him.
Ostensibly, what you see happen in this clip is Lillard driving to the basket against O.J. Mayo and failing to score. But what's just as interesting is what doesn't happen - no one else gets open. Aminu is on the block, just sort of standing there. Davis attempts to screen and roll to the rim, but he's so late with the screen that Lillard's already started driving without him. Crabbe attempts to curl around a screen and get open, but Milwaukee's Khris Middleton goes over that screen and fronts Crabbe perfectly.
Lillard is forced to drive because he's got no other options. This possession looks destined to end the way it does, with Dame going to the rack for an attempt that's swatted away by Antetokounmpo. Ugly shot, but what choice did he have? Maybe a kick-out to McCollum in the left corner, but Carter-Williams is there lingering, waiting to close out.
The truth about late-game situations is they're a lot tougher to execute than normal NBA possessions. I'm always loath to read anyone's nonsense about "clutch" performance in another sport like baseball, but in the NBA it's a thing because defenses get tougher. It's impossible to play elite defense for a full 48 minutes, so the pros naturally conserve their best effort for these close and late moments. Typical pick-and-roll actions that got you a bucket in the second quarter might not work in the fourth. Defenses work harder to stop them. You either need a more sophisticated playcaller or a more skilled shotmaker to step up.
Lillard tries to be both things, and his teammates try to help him. So far, they've struggled. I think part of the problem is a lack of perspective on game situations. In the above clips, for example, Lillard appears to play the situation - he fired a quick jumper against Cleveland because the Blazers were losing and needed to come back, and he took it slow against the Bucks because they were ahead. But in both cases, the lead wasn't that big, and it wasn't that late. Down 6 with 1:27 to go is not a desperation situation. It just calls for solid, fundamental basketball. When you get too caught up in the moment, every situation looks more dramatic than it actually is.
Likewise, you could argue that Lillard has shown a lack of perspective on his teammates. Even if he's "the guy" that Portland turns to most in clutch situations - and he absolutely is - that doesn't mean he should take every shot. Generally, an open man is better than a guarded superstar, and an actual play is better than an isolation jumper. There's a great study conducted years ago by TrueHoop's Henry Abbott, demonstrating that Chris Paul has always been a better performer in the clutch than Kobe Bryant. It's because CP3 doesn't take ugly fadeaway jumpers. He makes plays.
My aspiration for Lillard is for him to evolve into a clutch player who's less Kobe and more CP3. He's not there yet, but the hope is he begins inching in that direction with more experience. I'm optimistic that he will. You play enough situations like this, and eventually these decisions become second-nature. Once you get enough reps, you'll have had plenty of games that you've trailed by 6 and won, or led by 6 and lost. You develop your own heuristics for these situations based on lots and lots and lots of real-time trials. Lillard, and the whole Blazers team by extension, are still conducting their first few trials.
The fourth quarter used to be all about Dame's shot-making ability - they even called it "Lillard Time" last year in his honor. But that was when he had other well-established weapons around him to help create opportunities. Lillard had room to fire away because defenses were busy reckoning with LaMarcus Aldridge in the paint, or chasing Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum around screens. This new team doesn't have those threats. Instead, it will have to find new offensive weapons and carve out a new identity. That takes time.
Which is fine. There will be plenty more close games in the future - more chances to close out games like the heartbreakers Portland lost this week at Milwaukee and Cleveland. The only solution for this problem is to face it head on, again and again.
Experience is good. Long locker-room talks between your star player and head coach are good. Accumulated knowledge, open communication and slow, careful evolution of the team concept are all most definitely good things. This is all part of the process - and to borrow a catchphrase from another young, rebuilding team in today's NBA, perhaps we should all just trust that process.