After his first game against the greatest point guard of his generation, back in 2012, Damian Lillard said of Chris Paul, “I see the world in his eyes.” For the uninitiated, Lillard was referring to the beauty and excellence of a point guard’s sight and how Paul viewed the action on the floor and how he created more action and organized everything. Five days into his professional career, it was a priceless learning experience for Damian Lillard and he had a good showing for a rookie. He played nine more minutes than Chris Paul but had five fewer points, one less assist, and his team lost by 13.
More impressive was Lillard’s ability to sum up exactly who and what the Blazers were in November of 2012. The Clippers had established a 25 point lead and then the Blazers stormed back but couldn’t get close enough to turn the tide.
Lillard said, “We can’t put ourselves in that hole because we’re not that level of team to be able to fight back every time.”
Lillard’s clear assessment of the Blazers, coupled with his ability to say so, elevated him to a leadership level and he had yet to finish his first week as a NBA player.
Chris Paul was impressed by what he saw from Lillard during that game. Paul, before he is anything, is the center object of the point guard fraternity. Every new talent to come into the league he encourages and mentors, even while they are playing against each other.
“He can play. Portland better hold on to him because they definitely have a prized possession for the future.” (Chris Paul on Damian Lillard).
It was as Lillard said, Chris Paul seeing the world in his eyes, the Damian Lillard world. Six years later, the Damian Lillard world is here. In the playoffs. Down 0-2. Getting the living crap beat out of him by Jrue Holiday. When Jrue has guarded Dame the last two games, Dame has missed every shot and has scored 2 points.
The Blazers look gassed and not really in the fight. They look like they are playing regular season basketball while the Pels are playing playoff basketball, frenetic and desperate for every 50/50 ball. The Blazers aren’t helped by the matchup. Where Rip City is weak, the Pels are strong. Jrue Holiday is an antidote to Lillard. He’s a big physical guard who plays tough and is athletic. Rondo is slicing up the Blazers defense. The Blazers don’t pass the ball. They were last in the NBA in assists. That doesn’t engender confidence in the postseason where weaknesses are amplified. The Blazers don’t have the size to compete up front with a talent like Anthony Davis. If they are not getting a MVP 45 point game from Lillard, they struggle, as they have this series.
The Blazers ended the regular season limping and breathing hard. They were 2-4 and couldn’t make threes. They played exhausted. Nothing much has changed.
The Blazer truth is that everything is on Lillard like everything was on Westbrook last season. But with Lillard it feels different, even though it is Lillard or bust. He has an organic rhythm of making everything about him and nothing about him until the end when he buries you with his jumper to win the game. Except he can’t find his rhythm in the playoffs with Jrue Holiday hounding him. When the Blazers lose, it’s because Lillard struggles on offense and defense. He is everything to the Blazers which is the Blazers blessing and curse. They still aren’t a versatile offensive and defensive team with multiple weapons who can create their own shot and frankly their pace is slower than it should be with Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
The farthest Lillard has advanced in the playoffs was the second round; he did that twice. As great as he has been in 2018, if he goes out meekly, there will be more questions than answers. Can he pull this team into something greater? Or are the pieces too average for Lillard to do much with?
Because Lillard had been so spectacular all season long, his meager playoff performances are blocking out the sun, particularly the front office mistakes that have the Blazers mired in front court and bench mediocrity, free agent signing blunders and salary overpayments. The playoffs incentivize the team game. With Lillard’s struggles it is making everyone remember what Neil Olshey hasn’t done, mainly surround Lillard and McCollum with talent like the Warriors and Rockets. At some point, Lillard was going to get exhausted. If you have to score 35 points a night for your team to win, you won’t have a long playoff run. You might lose both games on your home floor.
So what is the Portland plan really? Just get into the playoffs? Lillard delivered on that. If they want to stay there, they need a team effort and versatility. The NBA is a league where you can no longer put everything into a single player. He needs elite help, two other All-Stars. The Blazers are on the outside looking in as far as depth. It’s Damian Lillard 24-7, Damian Lillard or bust.
Bust is here.