Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Dame Lillard Shot

From ESPN's Zach Lowe:

"Damian Lillard and the determined Blazers A lesser team -- hell, most teams -- would have broken apart after the four-game humiliation New Orleans inflicted on Portland a year ago. The Blazers didn't run from it. They took time to hurt. They acknowledged weakness. And then, they fortified themselves.

They didn't overhaul their system, on either end. They got better at it, and added new wrinkles. Lillard came back with new ways to skirt trapping defenses. They stormed out of the gate, survived a hellish winter schedule, and surged again in March and April. They believed, even after losing Jusuf Nurkic -- their second-best player for much of the season.

They knew they could win, but also that they could lose without fracturing. Losing no longer scared them. "There's nothing for us to be afraid of," CJ McCollum told me in November, "because the worst has already happened."

They were ready for Oklahoma City's blitzing defense. Lillard picked the Thunder apart. He wore down the redoubtable Steven Adams. On one Lillard pick-and-roll midway through the third quarter of Portland's pivotal Game 4 win, Adams failed to rumble beyond the 3-point arc. Lillard, perhaps surprised by the open space in front of him, walked into an easy triple to put Portland up 12.

Billy Donovan then shifted Adams away from Portland's screen-setters, and had him guard Maurice Harkless off to the side. It was surrender. It was merciful. A year ago, Lillard's confidence melted under pressure from New Orleans' trapping defense. You could see it. He broke. This time around, he broke the Thunder.

The whole team played with poised ruthlessness. McCollum cooked pull-up jumpers, and rescued wobbly all-bench units. Portland's guards will never have classic postseason size, but the ability to make tough shots -- to make something from nothing -- is a must-have playoff skill, too. Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers' quiet soul, did a little of everything. Harkless scrounged for double digits. Bit players stepped up.

The Blazers spent the season asking: Why not us? Why can't we be the second-best team in the Western Conference? Why can't we make the conference finals?

But perhaps even they didn't realize what they were really asking: If Durant departs Golden State, why can't we challenge for the NBA Finals?

Maybe they'll never get there. Nurkic has a long recovery ahead. Zach Collins looks like a guy who can make the leap, but actually making it is a different thing. The cap is strangling them. They are always one bad playoff matchup from facing the same old questions about the smallish LIllard-McCollum backcourt.

But right now, the Blazers look like a case study in persistence -- proof there is value in staying good in a league that too often disparages prolonged goodness."

From Free Darko and GQ's Nathaniel Friedman:

"Damian Lillard became a superstar in that moment. With seconds left on the clock and the Blazers and the Thunder knotted up at 115, Lillard lingered at the top of the key, way beyond the three-point line, casually sizing up the floor as all-world defender Paul George lay in wait. As the seconds ticked off, Lillard projected calm and assurance while seemingly taking no decisive action, and George, who hung back slightly in case Lillard went for the lane, began to look uneasy, like something was not quite right in the world. And it was: Lillard was supposed to make a move, if not close in; he was supposed to be looking for a good, clean shot that gave his Blazers the best chance of winning Game 5 and closing out the series. Instead, Lillard went nowhere.

In the post-game press conference, George called it “a bad shot,” and while calling an instantly iconic and clearly intentional game-winner (series-winner, actually) a “bad shot” sounds like sour grapes, he does have a point. George’s job was to keep Lillard from taking the final shot, or at least limit him to as low-percentage a look as was possible. On the pure math of it, a player is less likely to sink a 37-foot step-back three than they are pretty much any other shot Lillard could have taken in this situation. That Lillard only needed two points to win the game makes the shot even more preposterous.

But George’s post-mortem failed to account for the fact that transcendent players have the ability to break the math. By the analytics-driven logic of the present-day NBA, Lillard’s shot was an aberration. It was a gamble that paid off. But it also assumes that the math is the bottom line, that Lillard isn’t the kind of player who knows when the right shot isn’t the “best” shot. Not only was it lazy—George should have remembered that Lillard had knocked one down from that exact spot earlier in the game—it’s borderline disrespectful. And disrespecting Lillard, who has spent years rightfully complaining that he doesn’t get his due, and whose acrid back-and-forth with Russell Westbrook had been the defining narrative of the series, was the wrong move. It probably only made Lillard stronger. Not only did he want to win. He wanted to rub it in."

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