On the face of it, Damian Lillard’s game against the Grizzlies on Sunday was his worst of the season. However, his performance displayed a maturity that has been central to the Trail Blazers‘ emergence as a surprise package in the NBA.
He had 19 points, the only time in his seven games so far where he scored below 27. Lillard also added six rebounds and a steal – solid numbers, but hardly MVP caliber. However, as Portland overcame a tough road game in Memphis, it was clear why they have continued to be successful in their post-LaMarcus Aldridge era. Lillard’s willingness to delegate to C.J. McCollum down the stretch got them over the line.
Shutting Out the Grizzlies
One moment in particular stood out. With McCollum on fire from outside, Lillard drove to the basket through a forest of Grizzlies defenders. Instead of forcing a tough shot, he made an improbable pass to find McCollum for an open three. It was the dagger. With a six-point lead and three minutes remaining, the Grizzlies still had a chance, but they never looked like they were going to overhaul the Blazers after that.
Lillard is one of the best 4th quarter shooters in the league, but in that instance, he knew it was McCollum’s night. It was the mark of a true superstar. Leading a team is not just about taking the responsibility yourself, but recognizing when an in-rhythm teammate can get the team over the hump.
Lillard made no secret of MVP ambitions before the season, nor was he timid in aiming for a deep playoff run in 2017. Both seem unlikely even now, but the point guard seems to thrive when he is overlooked.
When Aldridge and three other starters left the Trail Blazers in the summer of 2015, many predicted them to be a lottery team. They got the fifth seed. When Lillard was snubbed for the All-Star team in 2016, he boosted his scoring to over 25 points per game after the break. He would go on to make the All-NBA Second Team. And when the Blazers were down 2-1 to the Los Angeles Clippers in the playoffs, they bounced back to win four straight and make the Western Conference Semifinals. Their star was excellent in Game Six.
For Portland to go one better and achieve Lillard’s aim of reaching the Western Conference Finals, they still have a long way to go. Their 4-3 record is middling, and the Western Conference has the firepower that makes it extremely difficult to win.
As for Lillard’s personal goal of winning the MVP, there may be an outside chance. He is suspect defensively, but his exciting offensive game may be too good to ignore if he maintains his 30-plus scoring average. What will hold him back will be the Blazers’ likely lack of wins. Only once in the last 30 years has the season MVP come from outside the first or second seed in his conference – Michael Jordan. His Chicago Bulls were the 3rd seed.
The only thing thwarting Lillard’s MVP credentials is team wins, but that award is a long way away. For now, the star point guard will be focused on taking his team back to the playoffs. His leadership will be key.