Lillard Brings Back More Than Memories From All-Star Weekend

damecasey600.jpg



Casey Holdahl

CASEY HOLDAHL
Beat Writer
Portland Trail Blazers
ForwardCenter.net

Casey Holdahl is the beat reporter for Trailblazers.com. A graduate of the University of Oregon's Allen School of Journalism and Communication, Holdahl founded BlazersEdge.com and worked at the Statesman Journal and OregonLive.com before joining the Trail Blazers in 2007.

View more of Casey's Portland Trail Blazers coverage at ForwardCenter.net

Damian Lillard could feel it almost immediately.

He had just finished playing in his first All-Star Game, a nine points in nine minutes performance in the West's losing effort in New Orleans, which capped a five-events-in-three-days weekend for the second-year point guard out of Weber State.

The feeling wasn't one of fatigue, which some thought might be an issue with his participating in so many events and appearances during the NBA's spotlight weekend. It wasn't relief at finally having some time to himself after spending almost all of his waking hours being shuttled from one venue to the next. And it wasn't awe from rubbing elbows on the court and on the bench with some of the best players in NBA history.

Rather, it was a feeling of confidence that washed over Lillard after gaining admittance into one of the NBA’s most exclusive clubs.

“Just being around these guys, I'm already feeling more confident,” said Lillard after the 2014 All-Star Game. “My confidence was high before and now I'm taking more confidence from this just because now I feel like I'm one of them, I'm one of those guys. Can't wait to take that attitude back to my team.”

The timing of that boost couldn’t have been better for the Trail Blazers, as LaMarcus Aldridge sat out the first five games directly following the All-Star break with a left groin strain. Portland went 4-1 in those games, with Lillard averaging 27.2 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, numbers well above his season averages.

“I feel, going into each game, that I'm an All-Star now, I'm a part of that group of top players,” said Lillard. “And I need to play like it, especially with my team being a man down, our best player being out, that's the best time to show it.”

While some of that Lillard’s statistical improvements since the break can be attributed to there being more shots to go around with Aldridge out of the lineup, the ego boost that Lillard took away from New Orleans strengthened his belief that the Trail Blazers could survive without their best player, at least for a while.

“I think it's leadership, taking control,” said Lillard on how his new-found confidence transfers to the court. “There's situations in a game where I have to take control. I might have to go attack a little bit more or I might have to make sure I get Wes [Matthews] going. I've got to be able to notice things that, if we had LA out there, I might be able to just say 'Drop, throw it into [Aldridge]' and let LA go to work. But now I've got to find a solution. Basically it's me taking ownership of what's happening on the court.”

But while being selected as one of the best players in the NBA was an honor for Lillard, it’s also a burden, one he takes seriously. The way he sees it, there’s a price for that confidence, and the only way to pay for it is to use it to show his inclusion was the right decision.

“A lot of it, for me, is the fact I was voted in by the coaches,” said Lillard. “I think it's a respect thing, that coaches respect me and realize what I've been able to do. That gives you confidence, along with being a part of that group in the All-Star Game. I feel like I need to prove it was the right thing, because there are other guys that were worthy, like Goran Dragic. I just feel like I need to prove it, take something away from the fact that I was able to be there.”

One of the ways Lillard has “proved it” since the All-Star game is his finishing at the rim. Lillard has had some difficulty this season when it comes to attacking the basket, as there have been times when he’s looked to go around defenders at the rim rather than straight at them. The result has been a 44 percent conversion rate at the rim, well below the league average.

But since the All-Star break, Lillard has been much improved around the rim, finishing 58 percent of his attempts within eight feet of the rim. Granted, statistics derived from small sample sizes need to be viewed in the proper context, but a 14-percentage point improvement is nothing to write off as a statistical anomaly, especially if he continues that clip throughout the rest of the season. He’s going up stronger and seems to be worrying less about drawing a foul and more about finishing the play, which one could attribute, at least partially, to a greater sense of confidence.

Did participating in five events at All-Star Weekend take something away from Lillard? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. In fact, it seems far more likely that he returned to Portland with more of something he already possessed.

“I had that confidence in myself, but I was the only believer at one point,” said Lillard. “Now I've made other people believers. So when you make other people believers, you get confidence from that.”