With Edge And Will, Lillard Looks To Have A Little Fun
When you ask the players about the Trail Blazers’ improved play as of late, two words, “will” and “edge,” come up more often than most. When they talk about their “edge,” they’re referencing a high level of focus and attention to detail, whether it’s in practice, film sessions or games, that was absent during the first three-quarters of the 2016-17 season. And when they mention “will,” they’re talking about a readiness to summon whatever might be required to make it to the Western Conference playoffs for the fourth-straight season.
Then again, it’s not necessary at this point to define what “edge” and “will” mean for the Trail Blazers right now, at least not if you’ve been watching Damian Lillard during Portland’s now-completed five-game road trip. In leading the Trail Blazers to a 4-1 record on the trip, including wins in San Antonio, Atlanta and Miami, Lillard averaged 36.0 points on 54 percent shooting from the field and 55 percent shooting from three and 100 percent shooting from the line, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.0 steals in 34.6 minutes, which has prompted his coaches and teammates to note on numerous occasions that the 6-3 guard is playing with an edge in an attempt to will the team to the postseason.
“He’s playing at a real high level,” said Noah Vonleh, who himself is playing easily the best basketball of his NBA career. “He’s been playing at a high level throughout the year but after the All-Star break, just came back with more of an edge. He’s trying to will us to the playoffs.”
At no time during the trip was that more evident than in the first quarter of Sunday night’s victory versus the Heat. Playing the last game of a five-game, nine-day trip on the second night of a back-to-back in a city whose nightlife has robbed more than a few NBA players of their preparedness, the Trail Blazers went down by eight early, as Heat center Hassan Whiteside scored Miami’s first 10 points with seemingly little effort.
But as he has made a habit of doing since the All-Star break, Lillard didn’t wait for the game to get out of hand before forcing the issues on offense. Perhaps sensing his team needed an early boost considering the circumstances, Lillard looked for his own early, finishing with quarter with 15 points on 4-7 shooting from the field, 2-of-3 shooting from three and 5-of-5 shooting from the free throw line.
“I think it’s just important to come out aggressive just to establish that mindset of look, we’re coming,” said Lillard. “A lot of times I’m handling the ball, a lot of times I’m calling the plays so I’ve got a lot of control. I think, as a leader, it’s important to be the guy to spark that up, I guess put that urgency in our minds that this is the way it’s gonna be. We coming after it on both ends of the floor, being aggressive calling out plays, being sharp with coverages and that’s just what it has to be. We need to win games and it can’t be we find it in the second quarter or we kind of ease our way into the game. We’ve got to attack these games and I think that’s been a huge difference in this trip.”
Lillard didn’t cease his attack on Sunday’s game until the final buzzer, finishing with a season-high 49 points on 14-of-21 shooting from the field, 9-of-12 shooting from three and 12-of-12 shooting from the free throw line. Lillard’s nine three-pointers versus the Heat tied his own franchise record for three-pointers in a game while also making him the first player in team history to make 1,000 threes in his career. While he’s been one of the better volume three-point shooters in the league throughout his NBA career, Lillard’s long-range shooting as of late has been next level, which he credits to an increased focus with a playoff berth on the line.
“I’ve been doing the same thing that I always do, pregame routine hasn’t changed,” said Lillard. “I think it’s just the mentality, the level of focus going into the game, taking nothing for granted. Every shot I’m shooting is a strong shot, I’m coming off and I’m making the right reads. I think when you make the right decisions and you play the game the right way it works out in your favor and that’s what I’ve been doing. But I’ve been doing it with an aggressive attitude.”
That aggressive attitude, both in terms of Lillard’s performance and that of the entire team, has resulted in the Trail Blazers pulling to within one game of the Denver Nuggets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 13 games to play. Through edge and will, the Trail Blazers, and Lillard in particular, have put themselves in position to finish what has been at times a disappointing season with something more pleasant.
“The way we talk about stuff, the film, guys asking questions, I just feel like we sharper,” said Lillard. “Our minds are sharper right now and I think a lot of that has to do with everybody wanting to make the playoffs. The other day I told a couple guys, I said ‘Playoffs is the most fun part of the season and I’m not trying to miss that.’ We need to realize that that’s what is on the line. I talked to Tim Quarterman last night, I told him that ‘The playoffs is crazy. I want you to be able to experience that.’ It’s something that we want to be a part of and I think our mindset changed because everybody wants that. I think that’s why we’ll be able to sustain that level of focus.”