Damian Lillard is built for these pressure-packed playoff moments, both those he’s already experienced and those to come. His legend grows with each scintillating moment he provides for the Portland Trail Blazers during their playoff run.
So to say Lillard is eager to keep it going against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals would be an epic understatement.
That might explain his mild surprise at the reaction of folks in the Moda Center and bars around the city after his step-back dagger to finish off the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. The wild celebration caught him off guard, mostly because he expected to come through in the clutch -- even if no one else did.
“What if we win the second round? What if we go to the Western Conference finals?,” Lillard said of his focus after digesting the reaction. “How are they going to react then?’ That was my mentality.”
Being swept out of the playoffs in your two previous postseason appearances has a way of hardening the heart of a true competitor like Lillard. The Blazers' trying season began with the death of owner Paul Allen and culminated with the loss of starting center Jusuf Nurkic being lost for the postseason with a compound fracture of his left leg.
Another early exit for the Blazers, however painful, would have been understood given the circumstances.
Lillard wasn’t having it. Not at this stage of his career. Not with a path to the conference finals — the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are in the conference semifinal on the other side of the bracket — in plain sight.
A Nuggets team believing in its own destiny stands in the way, of course.
But for Lillard, as he stated repeatedly during the Thunder series, it’s not about the other team. It’s about the Blazers only. He has preached that if they do what they’re supposed to do, the rest will fall into place. And they are clearly ready to follow him wherever he takes them.
“I don’t think anybody in here is satisfied,” said Blazers swingman Mo Harkless. “We’re happy that we were able to take care of business in the first round, but we’re not satisfied. We know that we’ve got more work to do. We’re capable of doing more things this postseason.”
Three things to watch
1. Can Damian Lillard keep it going? He shot a mind-boggling 48.1 percent on 3-pointers in the first round, including a perfect 5-for-5 from 30 feet-plus. Even if the Nuggets could find someone on the roster eager for the challenge, there’s still the matter of doing the job. And no one in these playoffs (outside of Golden State’s Kevin Durant) is doing their job better than Lillard. He’s playing with the unwavering focus of a man you’d think had been through this kind of playoff run countless times before. He's most dangerous because he knows how to compartmentalize his emotions and stay locked in on the current objective.
2. How do the Trail Blazers deal with Nikola Jokic? To borrow a phrase from the Golden State Warriors, strength in numbers. That's the only way the Blazers can combat what Jokic -- potentially the best-passing big man we’ve seen in generations -- brings as a triple-double threat every night. No Nurkic and a hobbled Enes Kanter (sore shoulder) means Meyers Leonard and Zach Collins will have to provide quality minutes against Jokic. That rotation dealt with the brute force of Steven Adams in the first round. Now, they're faced with the do-it-all wizardry of Jokic.
3. Is Denver’s bench mob is legit? Absolutely. Nuggets coach Mike Malone deploys Malik Beasley, Mason Plumlee and Monte Morris the way Clippers coach Doc Rivers unleashed Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell on the rest of the league all season. The tempo change is real when the Nuggets’ bench mob provides that energy boost. Morris might very well be the best true point guard on the roster and Beasley will be critical in guarding Lillard or CJ McCollum. Plumlee’s work in relief of Jokic all season has not been celebrated as it should have been. Malone might play them together more in this series to take advantage of his bigger lineup against a Blazers team that appears soft(er) in the middle without Nurkic.
Number to know
13.8 percent -- In the regular season, only 13.8 percent of Nuggets' defensive possessions were classified as pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions by Synergy play-type tracking. That was the league's second-lowest opponent rate, higher than only that of the Houston Rockets' switch-heavy defense. The Nuggets have one of the league's most aggressive defenses in regard to getting the ball out of the ball-handler's hands. And when ball-handlers kept it, the Denver defense allowed just 0.83 points per possession, the league's fifth-best rate.
Lillard is a high-usage and highly efficient pick-and-roll player. In the regular season, he ranked fifth with 10.9 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game, and the 1.08 points per possession he scored as a pick-and-roll ball-handler was the best mark among 43 players that averaged at least five of those possessions per contest. In the playoffs, both of those numbers have been higher. Lillard averaged 12.4 ball-handler possessions per game in the first round, and he scored 1.11 points per possession on them.
But in his four regular-season games against Denver, Lillard's pick-and-roll numbers were down: He averaged just 8.5 ball-handler possessions per game against the Nuggets, and he scored just 0.85 points per possession on them. Lillard's usage rate against Denver was just 22.2 percent, his lowest mark against any Western Conference opponent.
The Nuggets certainly haven't been an elite defensive team overall. They ranked 10th defensively in the regular season and 10th in the first round. The season series between these two teams (which Denver won 3-1) was efficient on both ends of the floor, with the Nuggets and Blazers combining to score more than 116 points per 100 possessions over the four games. But Denver's defense has been relatively successful in taking away Portland's bread-and-butter.
The Nuggets had to grind all the way to a Game 7 against the Spurs and then survive a fourth-quarter meltdown to reach this point. That makes it easy to assume they’ll continue to struggle through their first postseason run together. Be careful with those easy assumptions this time of year. There’s a reason these teams are No. 2 and No. 3 in the West playoff bracket as this is as fair a fight as Warriors-Rockets is. As good as Jokic has been in this postseason, and he’s been terrific, the Nuggets will need everything he can muster and more. Denver, which had the best home record this season, must fight off the wrath of Lillard and McCollum next after their postseason breakthrough. Overall, give Denver the edge in this series. Nuggets in 7.
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