NBA PM: Appreciating Damian Lillard

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Should Russell Westbrook or James Harden win this year’s MVP? Should Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic win Most Improved Player? Can anyone really challenge the Golden State Warriors for this year’s NBA title? These are some of the questions that are currently occupying the minds of NBA fans and media members as the regular season comes to a close. Often lost in the shuffle of awards season is the stellar performances of players who are on non-contending teams or aren’t candidates for one of the major awards. With this in mind, we turn the spotlight to Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who has been playing at a very high level this season, especially since the All-Star break.

Yesterday, the NBA announced that Damian Lillard was named the Western Conference player for the month of March.

Here is a short excerpt from the NBA’s Press Release detailing some of Lillard’s impressive statistics for the month of March:

Behind Lillard, the Trail Blazers went an NBA-best 13-3 in March to surge into eighth place in the Western Conference.  Lillard ranked third in the NBA in scoring (29.1 ppg) and tied for fourth in three-pointers made (55) to go with 6.0 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.44 steals in 16 games.  The 26-year-old guard shot 48.3 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from three-point range and 87.7 percent from the free throw line.  Lillard posted eight games with at least 30 points, including a season-high 49-point performance in a 115-104 road win over the Miami Heat on March 19.  He matched a career high with nine three-pointers and hit 12-of-12 at the free throw line against Miami.

Lillard is currently seventh in the league points per game (26.8), but is averaging 29.3 points per game since All-Star Weekend. The only player scoring more points per game over that same time period is Westbrook (34.3), though it should be noted that he is also taking nearly five more shots per game than Lillard.

Lillard may not be receiving much attention this season (relative to his peers) since the Trail Blazers have been struggling to keep pace in the Western Conference playoff race until very recently. After losing eight of eleven games from late January through the end of February, the Blazers have won 14 of their last 18 games and have taken control over the eighth seed. As of this writing, Portland holds a 1.5 game lead over the Denver Nuggets, who have won five of their last 10 games.

The Blazers will have to endure the fact that Nurkic will be sidelined for the rest of the regular season at the very least with a non-displaced fibular fracture in his right leg. The loss of Nurkic definitely hurts, but Lillard is one of the few players in the league who has the talent and attitude to put his team on his back and carry it in a situation like this. He, along with teammate C.J. McCollum will have to be particularly sharp on the offensive end of the court now that the team doesn’t have a reliable threat in the post with Nurkic sidelined. The Blazers certainly could have used Nurkic in their recent matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves as Karl-Anthony Towns erupted for 34 points and 12 rebounds. Lillard had a shot to win the game on a buzzer-beating jumper but missed, which resulted in a 110-109 loss.

Lillard will need to quickly bounce back from this loss and start putting together some of his better performances, such as his 49-point outing against the Miami HEAT.

“That was one incredible performance,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “There’s less than five players in this league that you have to do something different on your pick-and-roll coverage. Lillard obviously is one of those guys. Once he got going … he was outstanding.”

Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was also impressed with Lillard’s performance.

“I love the effort that we’re playing with,” Terry Stotts said. “Damian Lillard’s performance goes without saying. But it was a really good team effort and a great end to the road trip.”

While the recent run has been a nice boost for Portland, Lillard still seems to lament that it took the majority of the season to get to this point.

“We feel like we’re the team right now that we should have been all along, the way we’re playing. And all that matters is getting that playoff spot,” Lillard said recently. “I guess it’s good to be .500, but nobody comes into the season saying, `Let’s play .500 basketball.’ We wish we were in a better position.”

The Blazers have been playing much better than .500 basketball since the All-Star break and will need to carry that momentum into the postseason as they will likely face the Golden State Warriors. Since All-Star Weekend, the Blazers have had the third best offense (112.5 points per 100 possessions) the 14th best defense (105.9) and the third best net rating (6.6). Unfortunately, Golden State has been the hottest team in the league and is on the verge of getting superstar Kevin Durant back from injury. With Nurkic’s status in doubt, it will take a transcendent performance from Lillard and exceptional play from his teammates for Portland to have any realistic shot of upsetting the Warriors.

Whether the Blazers can compete with the Warriors or not, the fact is that Lillard hasn’t received enough recognition for his recent play. Of course, a lot of credit needs to go to Nurkic, who brought incredible energy and played with a chip on his shoulder before suffering a fracture in his right leg. However, Lillard is the engine that makes the Blazers go and they will only go as far as Lillard can take them. Considering how well he has been playing since the All-Star break, it’s not unreasonable to believe that Lillard and the Blazers could give the Warriors a scare or two in their first-round matchup.

He may not be in the running for the MVP or any other significant award this year, but Lillard deserves some serious recognition for his recent play. Winning Western Conference Player of the Month is a nice gesture, but somehow it still seems like we aren’t paying enough attention to how well he has been playing since All-Star Weekend.