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.
Lillard is pushing the Blazers to the coveted third seed, this with an incomplete roster, not much of a power forward or a bench, Jusuf Nurkic not having the year everyone expected, everything 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. He is playing the best basketball of his career at exactly the right time.
7 of his last 10 games: 50 points, 39 points, 44 points, 44 points, 35 points, 39 points, 37 points. The Blazers went 6-1. He will be fighting Anthony Davis for the third seed and whoever finishes on top will be the James Harden MVP alternative.
Lillard is making his case for All-NBA, a first for him. Career highs in field goal percentage, efg%, his 90% at the line is something he has never done before, career best defensive rating and PER. He is a better scorer on the road than at home. 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.
Damian Lillard is the 7th best point guard in Real Plus-Minus. The guards ahead of him: Chris Paul, James Harden, Steph Curry, Tyus Jones, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook. Because he’s from Oakland, he is always compared through the Steph Curry prism, something he finds annoying. Let him have his own game. But there’s no escaping the disparity. Curry’s team has 4 All-Stars and Lillards team only has him. Curry doesn’t have to be great every night. Lillard does.
In the Western Conference Finals everyone has penciled in a three point shoot out with the Rockets and Warriors. The farthest Lillard has advanced in the playoffs was the second round; he did that twice. As great as he has been in 2018, only three and a half games separate the third seed Blazers from the eighth seed Nuggets. He has to keep this up for 17 more games. Can he?
Because Lillard has been so spectacular, his 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. Is he making everyone forget what Neil Olshey hasn’t done, mainly surround Lillard and McCollum with talent like the Warriors and Rockets. At some point, Lillard is 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. That isn’t roster balance. Russell Westbrook’s playoff stay was very short in his MVP season and a cautionary tale.
So what is the Portland plan really? Just get into the playoffs? Lillard can deliver on that. Or do they want to stay there? It’s 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. If that’s the plan, the Blazers need an update.