Damian Lillard Continues His Stellar Play
We knew that some deserving star players would be snubbed from this year’s NBA All-Star game. It happens every year and is unfortunate for those deserving players who are excluded. There was perhaps no bigger All-Star snub this season than Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard.
In a league that is littered with star-caliber point guards, Lillard is considered to be one of the best. But that hasn’t kept Lillard from running into his share of snubs, like his exclusion from this year’s Western Conference All-Star team and being cut from the 2014 USA FIBA World Cup Team, in favor of players like Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose. Lillard has never been shy about voicing his displeasure when being snubbed, and now it seems that he is letting his play do all the talking for him.
Since the All-Star break, Lillard is averaging 33.6 points, 4.7 assists, 3.6 rebounds and one steal per game, while shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from three-point range. As a result, Lillard has started getting his fair share of respect and credit since the All-Star break. He essentially forced everyone to recognize his brilliant play when he put up 51 points against the Golden State Warriors in his first game after All-Star weekend. The Trail Blazers won that game 137-105. Lillard shot 18-28 from the field, 9-12 from three-point range, 6-7 from the free throw line and added seven assists.
In his most recent outing, Lillard did everything he could to keep his team in the game in crunch time against the second-best team in the East, the Toronto Raptors. In the final five and a half minutes of the game, Lillard did the following: Pulled up for a three-pointer off a screen, pulled up for a two-point jumper at the top of the free-throw arc, hit a pullup midrange jumper and drew the foul for a three-point play, penetrated the defense for a tough layup, hit a deep three-pointer from the wing, and another three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left in the game. It wasn’t enough as the Raptors beat the Trail Blazers 117-115. He finished the game with 50 points, five assists and three rebounds, while shooting 16-28 from the field.
His ability to pull up and hit three-pointers off the dribble is second only to Stephen Curry at this point. His range is basically unlimited, and again, it’s second only to Curry. Lillard wasn’t great at attacking the basket early in his career, but now he has worked to improve this part of game and is now a force. Oh, and he also hit this pull up three-pointer from a step inside the half-court line:
“How he isn’t an All-Star in our league, shame on us,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after Lillard put up 50 points in Toronto. “That young man can score any which way he wants to. Talk about [Stephen] Curry coming across halfcourt and shooting it? This young man can come across halfcourt and shoot it also.”
Lillard is also tied for sixth with Eric Bledsoe in points per possession as the ball handler in pick-and-roll sets among players that have handled the ball 100 times or more this season. While Lillard is behind Curry in this category, he is ahead of many notable players, including pick-and-roll savant Chris Paul.
While Lillard looks like Curry-lite at this point, which is a huge compliment in a lot of ways, he shouldn’t be defined by what another player is doing. Especially when that player is playing at historic levels. The focus should instead be on how Lillard is carrying his young, over-achieving team into the playoffs when everyone expected them to be one of the worst teams in the league this season.
Like Paul, who is carrying the Los Angeles Clippers in the absence of Blake Griffin, Lillard is leading the Blazers with his individual brilliance and leadership. The Blazers are currently 33-30 and ranked seventh in the Western Conference. If the playoffs started today, Portland would face the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. With the Spurs currently 11 games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the loss column and four games back of the Warriors in the loss column, the Blazers will have to jump ahead of the Dallas Mavericks to avoid San Antonio. While Oklahoma City is as talented as any team in the league, they have gone just 4-6 in their last 10 games, have buckled in crunch time situations against the Warriors and Clippers recently and are showing signs of self-doubt, with Kevin Durant stating recently that “we’re fooling ourselves with the way we’re playing.”
But as Lillard and the Blazers have shown recently, they can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league on any given night, including the Warriors. Whether the Blazers could beat the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder or even the Clipper in a seven game series is unclear at this point. But when a player like Lillard is playing at this level, anything can happen.
Kevin Martin Agrees to Sign with the San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs didn’t make any moves at the trade deadline last month, but have been busy making moves ever since. Less than a week after signing veteran point guard Andre Miller (who agreed to a buyout with the Minnesota Timberwolves), the San Antonio Spurs are now in line to sign Kevin Martin (who also agreed to a buyout with the Timberwolves).
Martin is having a down season as he averaged just 10.6 points, 2.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game for the Timberwolves this season. However, Martin’s numbers are down across the board because he was playing only 21.4 minutes per game (career average is 30.5 minutes) and Timberwolves head coach Sam Mitchell has focused on giving his younger players bigger roles than some of his veterans, including Martin. In the 2014-15 season, when Martin was averaging 33.4 minutes per game, he produced 20 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists, while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from three-point range.
Martin has been a lethal shooter for years and will likely have more open three-point attempts with the Spurs than he has had at any point in his career. Add in his ability to draw fouls off the dribble, and it’s scary to think how much better he could make the Spurs. Of course, fit and chemistry matter more than just about anything else, especially with a team like the Spurs, so whether Martin can have a major impact is yet to be determined. This is especially true when you consider that he has always been a below-average defensive player. However, the Spurs have as good of a shot as any team to maximize Martin’s strengths while hiding his weaknesses.
With Miller in the fold and Martin on his way, the Spurs have added more experience and more skill to a team that was already playing historically well.
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