When the 15 Western Conference coaches voted earlier this winter to send seven players to Toronto as reserves in last month's All-Star Game, Damian Lillard was not one of them. This news was devastating to countless fans here in Rip City, but it was also painfully predictable, even from several months out. You could see it coming - the West was stacked, especially at the guard positions, and someone had to miss the cut. It made sense that if someone were to get nixed, it would be the youngster on the rebuilding team with the questionable defensive acumen. Lillard was an unfortunate snub, but an understandable one.
Try telling that to Dame himself, though. In the three weeks since we've returned from the season's All-Star interlude, the Trail Blazers' point guard has been playing with a fiery passion reserved only for slighted, angry, vengeful All-Star omissions. Every athlete says all the right things when he misses out on an individual accolade, and Lillard is no exception to that, but man. His numbers tell you everything you need to know.
Lillard is one of the best guards in the NBA. Even when you stack him up against guys who did make it to Toronto last month, he still compares pretty favorably - you could argue he's had a better season than John Wall, Kyle Lowry or Isaiah Thomas, with no disrespect to any of those three. He's outscored all three of them this year by a healthy margin, he's out-assisted Lowry and Thomas and he's led the Blazers to a better offensive efficiency than Boston or Washington. Obviously there's an East-West imbalance that's in play here, but in a vacuum, you could definitely make the case that Lillard is a more deserving All-Star guard than half of the actual All-Star guards. So it makes sense that, following last month's snub, he's come out and played with a little extra chip on his shoulder.
Some guys play angry and it hurts their game - they press, they force their shot too much, they lose focus on the little things and so on. With Lillard, the anger has apparently helped. He's been an absolute monster, channeling his anger into one of the best three-week stretches (possibly the best?) of his career. When asked about the impact of Lillard's All-Star snub by ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz, teammate CJ McCollum replied, "Had nothing to do with it" before adding what Arnovitz called a "verbal wink" - that should tell you everything you need to know. He's pissed, and it's helping.
And it's not just against the All-Star guards, either. Lillard is a destroyer against everyone lately. The 50-point explosions grab the most headlines, but really he's been consistently good ever since the break:
- Lillard's 47 games before the All-Star break: 24.3 points per game, 7.3 assists per game, 4.4 rebounds per game, 41.8 percent from the field, 36.3 percent from three, 86.1 percent from the line
- Lillard's 11 games after the All-Star break: 33.5 points per game, 5.3 assists per game, 3.8 rebounds per game, 48.0 percent from the field, 41.9 percent from three, 92.7 percent from the line
Jeez. It's not hard to decipher what's going on here, is it? Lillard has become a cold-blooded killer. His numbers are not up across the board - note that the assists and rebounds are actually down - but he's become a better scorer in every sense of the word. He's more prolific, more efficient and equally dangerous inside the arc and out.
This is made possible by the way the Blazers play offensively. They're a pick-and-roll-oriented team, with Lillard spearheading the majority of the team's plays as the initial ball-handler. Every possession, the power is in his hands either to make a play for a teammate or to call his own number, and lately he's been dialing up himself again and again and again, with brutal effectiveness.
What's made Lillard so good lately is his ability to turn one simple screen into such a dazzling array of ways to destroy opposing defenses. Let's walk through a few...
This is the kind of play we've seen Lillard make a lot lately. Lillard is one of the best players in the NBA when it comes to attacking the paint and getting to the rim quickly, and he's been especially good lately at sniffing out mismatches and exploiting them. Basically, any time a team switches a pick-and-roll and puts a slowish big guy on Lillard even for a second or two, that big guy is toast.
Watch here as Toronto's Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo switch on an Ed Davis screen for Lillard. Biyombo's a solid rim-protecting big man, but he's swimming over his head trying to defend Lillard in space, 17 feet from the basket. He's got no shot against Dame. If you look closely, Dame actually has two layers of Toronto defenders to fight through here - first Biyombo, then Patrick Patterson, who's cheated a few steps away from Maurice Harkless to help protect the rim - but Dame doesn't care. He darts into the lane, sneaking to Biyombo's right but also tucking the ball away from Patterson's left, and he finishes beautifully in the lane, getting the basket and the foul.
Lillard doesn't have to attack here. He's got other options - he can kick it back to Davis or Harkless for a look that would probably be more open, or he can swing it around the horn to create an open 3-point shot for Gerald Henderson or Allen Crabbe. Perhaps a month or two ago, Lillard would have chosen one of those options. But this is the new Lillard - the guy who's averaging 22.4 field goal attempts per game post-All-Star, a marked increase from 19.7 before the break. It's the plays like this where Lillard ups his production at the margins. He's got a newfound confidence in his abilities that's noticeable, even compared to the pretty damn confident pre-break Lillard.
Dame doesn't just make hay by attacking the basket, though. He's also tapped into an improved mid-range game:
The Celtics are a tough matchup for Lillard because Avery Bradley and backup Marcus Smart are two of the peskiest guard defenders in the NBA, getting all up into his airspace and denying him any open room to operate. But when you start throwing screens at those guys and forcing someone else to beat you, the whole game changes.
The Blazers put Bradley through two waves of Blazer black here, first Al-Farouq Aminu and then Mason Plumlee. Bradley fights through the first man but on the second, Lillard gets his switch onto Plumlee's man, Jared Sullinger. Sully's a tough and high-energy player, but he doesn't have the foot speed to hang with Dame, and that shows through here. Sully fades back a couple of steps to seal off the rim, but he's got no hope of denying Lillard an open midrange jumper. Lillard steps back, fades away and has no trouble connecting from 17 feet.
I've been saying for years now that Lillard's one of the best players in the league when it comes to finding tiny pockets of open space and attacking them for quick scoring chances, and unbelievably he's only gotten better at that over the course of this season. Lillard has never been the best athlete in the world, but he makes up for it with incredible awareness, both of his own abilities and spatially, of where the other nine guys on the floor are going. It all shows here.
Lillard's a great attacker in pick-and-roll situations when the matchup's right. He's also lately shown an uncanny ability to wait patiently when he doesn't get the mismatch he's looking for:
Good god, that's pretty.
Lillard gets the ball in the corner on a drive-and-kick from McCollum, which leads into a pick-and-roll on the right side between Dame and Plumlee. On some nights, that simple action alone is enough to get Lillard a solid look at the basket, but the Wizards respond by switching Plumlee's man, Marcin Gortat, onto Lillard, meaning there's an immovable 240-pound Polish man between Dame and the basket. Lillard could just launch a floater from the elbow-ish area, but Gortat is looming not far away, so he decides to be patient. He kicks out to McCollum and then fades back to the 3-point line; both Gortat and Lillard's original man, Garrett Temple, are totally flat-footed. Neither has any chance of getting out to the top of the key and contesting Dame's open 3. (Kudos to Temple for trying.)
Lillard's poise in moments like this is uncanny. Laymen who don't watch the Blazers every night might think of him as a no-holds-barred offensive player - a Westbrookian dynamo who attacks the paint indiscriminately on every possession. But with Lillard, there's a little more to it than that. His floor sense and ability to make smart-but-unpredictable decisions under pressure set him apart. He doesn't just attack; he attacks with purpose and with impeccable timing.
The Blazers have built a top NBA offense that's dominated by Lillard's ability to run pick-and-rolls. According to Synergy Sports, Lillard is second in the league this season in total points scored as a pick-and-roll ball-handler - with 607 and counting, he ranks second only to Reggie Jackson's 646. Jackson's Pistons are No. 14 in the NBA in offensive efficiency, though; the Blazers are sixth.
At this point, there's no mistaking Lillard - he's the best offensive player on one of the best offensive teams in the game. Snubbing him from Toronto last month may have been understandable, but it was still a grave mistake, and an obvious one now in hindsight. Lillard now appears more deserving than LaMarcus Aldridge, James Harden or maybe even Anthony Davis. The only question now is where Lillard will rank in this spring's All-NBA voting. He's got a legitimate claim to the title of "fourth-best NBA guard," trailing only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. There are others in that mix, but none of them are outplaying Lillard right now.
Then again, comparing Lillard to anyone at all kinda feels like it's beside the point.
"I was being Damian Lillard." -- @Dame_Lillard responding to a question about "playing like Stephen Curry" in the first quarter— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) February 29, 2016
Lillard's right to push back against a question like that. Right now, there's no one in the NBA who's really an apt comparison for Lillard - he's not the best player in the game by any means, but he's a unique player. Describing what he's doing right now in the context of someone else just feels like cheapening the Lillard experience. He's not Steph, and he's not Westbrook or Paul either - he's Damian Lillard. And holy smokes. Right now, he's a really, really good Damian Lillard.