After a defeat such as the the one the Portland Trail Blazers absorbed on Sunday in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, it's pretty easy to do the immediate hot take reactions.
Al-Farouq Aminu shot terribly, 3-of-12 from the field and 2-for-8 from 3-point range. The Los Angeles Clippers basically left him unguarded and dared him to shoot for the entirety of the contest. CJ McCollum was outscored and outplayed by Austin Rivers, with 9 points and 3 assists on 3-for-11 shooting from the field against Rivers' 11 points and 1 assist on 5-for-10 shooting. Austin. Rivers.
Mason Plumlee was essentially a non-factor, finishing with 4 points 5 rebounds and zero assists. His playmaking was rendered null and his value diminished beyond cursory box score numbers. Not a single starter shot over 43 percent from the field for Portland.
There's plenty to take a look at here and analyze, but that's for a different time. Today we're going to look at Damian Lillard. Particularly his performances against elite competition.
Damian Lillard had a "meh" performance in Game 1. As has been documented numerous times here at Blazer's Edge, Chris Paul is the equivalent of Damian Lillard Kryptonite. Virtually across the board, CP3 outplays Lillard in their head-to-head matchups. So a "meh" game isn't the absolute worst that we've seen in his battles with Paul.
However, you aren't looking for "meh" games from your superstar point guard. It may be easier to justify Lillard's subpar play against Paul because Paul is a first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the all-time greats. But is it just Paul who Lillard struggles against?
Let me preface this by saying I still believe Damian Lillard is a franchise cornerstone. He's the present and the future for the Trail Blazers unless something drastically changes, and I'm okay with that. However, over the last couple of seasons a trend has emerged that is a bit alarming: While Lillard is more than capable of going off on any given night, he struggles against the best of the best.
On the surface it's easy to say, "Yeah - of course he struggles against those guys, they're the best." Isn't that the time you want your guy to really turn it on though? Let's take a top-level view of how Lillard has fared against All-Star guards (All-Stars from the last 2 seasons) in his career:
Here we have Lillard's career and playoff averages balanced against his head-head-head matchups with Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Jeff Teague, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. For each player you can see how Lillard's box scores play out against each of them. The baseline yellow is based off of Lillard's career averages, and the color scale is adjusted from there as the median.
The first thing that jumped out for me was that, save Lowry, Lillard shoots below average against every single one of them. Strangely enough, Lillard actually fares very well against Lowry, who's widely renowned as one of the best defensive players at the position. While team composition and previous roster iterations certainly play a factor, this particular line gives me some hope for Lillard going forward.
Outside of Lowry, the only places that Lillard really shines are on the score line against both Curry and Irving. There have been quite a few memorable battles between Lillard and these two - particularly Lillard and Curry. They've both put together highlight reel scoring explosions that have set the basketball Twitterverse on fire and made for must-watch TV.
For the most part though, Lillard becomes much less efficient as a shooter from nearly everywhere on the floor - overall, 3-point range and even from the free throw line. He does play above the line on the boards, consistently pulling down a rebound or two more per game. As well, he tends to take better care of the ball overall, with the exception of Paul and Lowry forcing turnovers, as they are wont to do.
Otherwise, it's a wash. Most of the gains that Lillard picks up are due to decreases in efficiency while increasing his usage. This is not unusual. In fact, it's typical to see decreases in efficiency when usage rates are increased. (For a great write up on the relationships between efficiency and usage rate, check this out from TheBirdWrites ). The problem here for Lillard is that for his opponents, this isn't necessarily the case:
In this instance we have Irving, Westbrook, Curry, and Paul for a sample size - and we're contrasting their career numbers against head-to-head matchups with Lillard. The color scale is only better/worse (green= better, red=worse) for simplicity's sake. Across the board, every single one of them upped not only their scoring (drastically in most cases) and all but Irving are shooting better from the field overall.
As you scroll across a you'll notice that even most of the red numbers are only small drops. Westbrook isn't noted for his 3-point marksmanship and the percentage drop is pretty insignificant. The only real drop offs of note are Irving's field goal percentage and Paul's 3-point percentage.
This presents a real problem for Portland not only in this series against the Los Angeles Clippers but for the Trail Blazers as a franchise going forward. The hot take here is that for all of Lillard's many talents and clutch performances, he's been consistently outplayed by the elite point guards around the league.
Still not sure? Here's the direct head to head numbers for Lillard against Irving, Westbrook, Curry and Paul:
Lillard is outscored and outshot in every single matchup. The only matchup where he generates more assists is against Kyrie Irving. This is the same Irving that managed to generate ZERO assists in a playoff game.
Another key takeaway here is that opponents are getting more shots up against Lillard while maintaining or increasing their field goal percentage. Remember how we noted that increased usage rate typically leads to decreased efficiency? That's not happening. One could assume that they know Lillard has defensive weaknesses and that they are targeting him specifically because of that.
So the Blazers currently have a Damian Lillard problem. It's a good problem to have, even though in Damian Lillard you have a player who has visible shortcomings.
He has the ability to achieve the spectacular every time he touches the ball. The problem is that when matched up against the best of the best, he can waver from the spectacularly awesome to the spectacularly atrocious.
For every ridiculous "(blank) you" 3-pointer that Lillard buries in the face of a defender from 30+ feet, there's a forced shot over two defenders that has no business being put up. For every scamper to the rim and ridiculous finish at the cup, there's a fade away jumper in traffic that would be better served as an extra pass.
Clearly Lillard is one of the most talented players in the league. He has a lightning quick release on his jumper that he can unleash from nearly anywhere inside 45 feet, an assortment of moves with both hands that enables him to wiggle through traffic or create space for that jumper and he's one of the most adept playmakers in the league out of the pick-and-roll. That package makes him one of the more dynamic players around and it serves for a point of contention when he goes so far off script.
There are glimmers of hope to be garnered here. First, Lillard has shown growth in nearly every capacity since he has entered the league. Scoring, assisting, playmaking, finishing at the rim, drawing free throws, even playing defense - he's shown significant growth.
Second, Lillard plays with a fire, the so called chip on his shoulder that motivates him to succeed and prove all the doubters wrong. As a fan of his and of this franchise, I hope for nothing more than for him than to continue proving doubters wrong. That drive may be the deciding factor in whether or not he can climb above and outperform the best this league has to offer on a nightly basis.
While this has been almost exclusively about Lillard, he does in fact have teammates. I don't mean to completely disassociate them, because they do play a huge part in both Lillard's successes and failures. However, as the face of the franchise he bares the burden of performance and leadership. That means absorbing the glory of achievements and the glaring spotlight of defeats and failures. Lillard needs to lift those supporting players if he wishes to be considered among the best. He cannot wilt. He cannot waiver.
If the likes of McCollum, Aminu, Plumlee, et al. up their games, then Lillard's opportunities for success will most likely increase. This is most assuredly true. It's on Lillard to set the table though. He needs to win the battles early if he is to have any chance of winning the war. History shows us that for the most part Lillard hasn't won many battles. He's had a few successes against the best the league has to offer, there is no doubt there - his 50-point explosion against Lowry and the Raptors immediately comes to mind.
When Lillard has been on the front foot, his teammates are usually there to support him. It's no surprise that when both Lillard and McCollum each have 25 or more points the Blazers are undefeated. The problem there is that the only opponents that occurred against were the, Utah Jazz (twice), Los Angeles Lakes (twice), Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, and New Orleans Pelicans.
Whether or not the Blazers are successful in the first round against the Clippers isn't solely on Lillard and his ability to win the matchup against Paul. It's more about the team concept, enabling Lillard to be more efficient and more productive than it is about Lillard winning his solitary battle against Paul.
However, if the Blazers are going to challenge in the coming years for a title, let alone a few wins in the playoffs, Lillard needs to figure out how to get on the winning side of these encounters with the best of the best. He has the perfect platform to take his first steps here in this series.
By nearly every measurement the Clippers are a better team on paper than the Trail Blazers. That doesn't mean they should pack up and get swept here in this series, hoping for better luck next year. They should and will try to their utmost ability to push on to the next round. The likelihood of them being successful and moving onto the next round are slim, to be certain, but this could be where they lay the groundwork for the franchise going forward.
Here, in this first round, Lillard can slay one of the demons that has haunted him in the periphery during the early stages of his career. Make no mistake, this is still very early in his career, and he still has years to improve upon his already stellar gameplay. But if Lillard is to take the next step - if he's going to carry this franchise to the next tier - he has to step up his individual game.
Lillard has to show that when push comes to shove he can hang with the big boys, and that he deserves a seat at the table among the finest this league can generate. He has the capacity. He has the drive. And while neither is a guarantee of success, I'm definitely not going to start doubting the man now.