Lillard Enters The New Year With A New Level Of Confidence

Usually, this is the point in the regular season when Damian Lillard starts to get just a little bit nervous. Between his team hovering at or below .500 and debates about his worthiness for an All-Star selection trending in the wrong direction, mid-January has often been about the time when Lillard's frustrations start to come to the surface. He's done a better job as the years have gone by in tamping down those feelings publicly, but in private, the 6-3 guard in his seventh season out of Weber State would allow himself to wonder what more, if anything, he could do to move up the standings in the West while also earning the respect his individual performances warranted.But that has not been the case this time around. While it would be incorrect to say Lillard is content with either Portland's standing in the West with a little less than half the season to go or his own play on a night-to-night basis, the combination of Portland sitting seven games above .500 and the notion that his chances of being named to the 2019 All-Star team are just short of a lock (but keep voting regardless!) has lessened those feelings of being overlooked and/or under-appreciated that have bubbled up the last four seasons.

"I do feel that I'm on a different level this season," said Lillard. "In the past, it was always like, explosive. I would have like a six-game stretch where I'd average 34 points and it would be like 'Yeah, he had a great run' and all this stuff."But I think from the start of this season to now, obviously the numbers are always there, but the impact of it is different. When we weren't playing well offensively, I was scoring the ball. Now that guys are going and we're playing against teams that we might have a better chance of beating, the playmaking, I'm controlling the game. I'm just controlling what's happening. Maybe last year I did that a lot of the time, but this year, it's always been there."From being fourth in the league in minutes played this season to scoring double digits in franchise-record 184 straight games to joining Clyde Drexler and LaMarcus Aldridge as the only players in team history to score 12,000 points, Lillard has achieved a level of consistency this season that few players in the NBA can boast."I think it's experience, part of it is just being out there. Just my understanding of everything is improving," said Lillard. "Understanding different ways of how I can help my teammates and get more out of my teammates and put them in better positions, make the game easier for them, how I can make the game easier for myself. Everything is just stronger, I feel like I'm making the game easier for myself. Just mentally, I'm able to control what's going on out there."

Perhaps it's that sense of being more in control that has led to the change in the way Lillard feels midway through the 2018-19 season compared to where his head was at this point in the last few campaigns. Or maybe it's carryover from the individual validation he received from being just the third player in franchise history to make First Team All-NBA last season. Or it could be due to shooting better than his career averages from the field, from three and the free throw line while also quieting complaints about his defensive prowess.But whatever the combination of variables is that has gotten Lillard to this point, it's resulted in the 28 year-old truly joining the elite of the NBA after teetering on the fringes of that level for the past few seasons. "I feel like I've been strong," said Lillard. "I've played in every game so far, it's our best start, I think, since our roster turned over. We're in a good position."Not to mention that Lillard's head is in a good place.