addByline("Marc D'Amico", "Celtics.com", "Marc_DAmico");
WALTHAM, Mass. – Damian Lillard is the hottest thing in the NBA this side of Stephen Curry. But does that matter heading into Wednesday’s showdown at TD Garden between the Trail Blazers and the Celtics?
History says it may not.
Lillard is in the midst of his best stretch as a professional, and that’s saying a lot for a two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year. Portland’s point guard has scored at a rapid pace over his last 10 games, averaging 31.4 points per contest. Most of those points – 19.0 per game, to be exact – are coming from the 3-point line and the free-throw line, where he is shooting a blistering 39.8 percent and 89.8 percent, respectively, over that stretch.
“He’s a heck of a player and just the level that he’s playing at now, and (C.J.) McCollum as well, is pretty impressive,” Stevens said. He later added, “He’s just got a great way about him and he doesn’t ever get sped up. It looks like his demeanor never changes.”
His demeanor may never change, but his performance certainly does when he faces off with the Celtics.
Although Boston has never caught Lillard at this hot of a pace in the past, it has played against him following some of his better stretches of ball. He has carried the following numbers into his six career matchups with the C’s:
Jan. 22, 2015: An average of 23.2 points per game over his previous six games, including four performances of at least 22 points.
Nov. 23, 2014: An average of 25.8 PPG over his previous five games, with five straight performances of at least 21 points.
Jan. 11, 2014: An average of 23.6 PPG over his previous six contests, with four performances of at least 21 points.
Nov. 15, 2013: An average of 18.2 PPG over his previous six contests, including four performances of at least 22 points.
Feb. 24, 2013: An average of 19.9 PPG over his previous 10 contests, including eight performances of at least 18 points.
Nov. 30, 2012: An average of 18.9 PPG over his previous 14 contests, including eight performances of at least 20 points.
One would assume that Lillard would have continued his hot play against Boston at least once during his career, but that has never happened. Not once.
Lillard’s top scoring performance against the C’s came on Jan. 22 of last season, when he scored 21 points but shot a woeful 8-of-23 (34.8 percent) from the field. That contest marks the only instance of his career of which he scored more than 17 points against the green and white.
Here’s how Lillard fared against Boston during his six matchups with the team, which coincide with the stretches and dates outlined above:
Jan. 22, 2015: 21 points on 34.8 percent shooting.
Nov. 23, 2014: 12 points on 28.6 percent shooting.
Jan. 11, 2014: 15 points on 33.3 percent shooting.
Nov. 15, 2013: 17 points on 40.0 percent shooting.
Feb. 24, 2013: 12 points on 31.3 percent shooting.
Nov. 30, 2012: Eight points on 25.0 percent shooting.
Clearly, the Celtics have something that acts as Lillard’s kryptonite. That something may be Avery Bradley.
Bradley has been Boston’s defensive stalwart for the past five seasons and has been around for all six of the team’s matchups with Lillard, starting and playing in five of those contests. His input was simple in regard to how he and his teammates have challenged Lillard in the past.
“We want to run him off the 3-point line,” Bradley said at Tuesday’s practice. “That’s our main focus.”
Lillard has made only 25.8 percent (8-of-31) of his career 3-pointers against Boston. His struggles from long distance appear to have impacted the rest of his game as well.
The Celtics will look to continue this trend Wednesday night. However, they understand that this version of Lillard, as well as this version of the Blazers, whose 17 wins since Jan. 9 trail only Golden State’s and San Antonio’s 18, may prove more difficult to contain than they have in the past.
“He’s definitely an All-Star,” Isaiah Thomas said of his point guard peer. “He should have been one.”
Stevens added of the Trail Blazers as a team, “They’re one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Probably Golden State and then Portland right now as far as winningest teams in the last month.”
The Celtics, in their own right, are right in the thick of that conversation. They, too, have won 17 games since Jan. 9 and have rocketed up to the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
Not only has Boston been hot of late, but it can also fall back on its ability to contain Lillard in the past. The C’s aren’t only ready for Wednesday night’s challenge – they’re excited by it.
“That’s what I play basketball for – every single night I want to go up against the best players,” said Avery Bradley, his eyes widening with excitement. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow night. I’m pretty sure Isaiah is as well.”
Thomas later added, “I can’t wait. It’s what you play for – to play against the best guys in the world and go against the best guards. And I’m all about competing, so I know I’ll be ready and I know [Lillard] will too.”
If Lillard is, in fact, ready to take on the Celtics, that would appear to be a first.