Damian Lillard makes mincemeat out of San Antonio (Getty Images)
Damian Lillard didn't cross anyone over on his way to a Derrick Rose-styled dunk on Thursday night, and he didn't take down the Kobe Bryant-led Lakers as Cleveland's Kyrie Irving managed on Tuesday. And it's true that the older San Antonio Spurs, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, did do him a few favors with their screen and roll defense, or lack thereof.
Hardly matters. In a needed win for a Portland Trail Blazers team still working through an inconsistent season, Lillard was the unquestioned leader and late-game go-to guy for a sprightly squad that downed the Spurs at home by a 98-90 score on Thursday. Lillard finished with 29 points on 11-22 shooting, with seven rebounds and six assists in the slow-down win, leaving the TNT crew and internet followers fawning along the way. In case you missed it, you with your Friday obligations, here's a lovely summation of the rookie's fantastic work in the win:
Lillard's two of six night from long range actually lowered his season percentage from outside to 36.6 percent, but the highlight shock of seeing those two impressive bombs might be enough to open up more than a few lanes as the season moves along.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a basketball obsessive above even his competitive instincts as Spurs coach, didn't mind crediting the opposition in glowing terms following his team's loss. From the Oregonian:
"I think he's a wonderful player," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "His skills are obvious, but I like his demeanor as much as I like his skills. He really plays within himself, and that doesn't mean he doesn't play hard. He's aggressive, he's not afraid of contact. ... He can shoot it, and he can drive it, and I think he works hard on D."
Lillard, still until spring holding things down as "The Rookie," was reserved following the win; talking up how good it was for the 10-12 Blazers to compete with one of the league's top outfits. TNT talky-talker Reggie Miller is no rookie, so he didn't mind going on about what he thought was a significant part of Lillard's early play. From Jason Quick at the Oregonian.
"This doesn't cement it, he has a long way to go, but it helps in his development,'' Miller said. "What I like is he spent four years in college (at Weber State). A lot of that is missing with these players, who like to be one-and-dones. It says something for guys who stay all four years, because you can see he has all the tools.''
He does, but in taking the patient route through his time at Weber State, Damian Lillard has exposed our own impatience with how we want our NBA players to look. For the most part — or, for people like Reggie Miller who aren't exactly hounding their League Pass on nights off from national work — mainstream NBA fans want their players fully formed. Three decades after underclassmen draft declarations became the norm, fans still want these youngsters to hop into the NBA ready to play; not unlike the NFL prospects they expect big things from after three or four years of college.
The issue with this is that a senior year at Weber State — with limited practice and game time, and through no fault of Weber's own a paucity of NBA-styled training equipment and competition — did not accelerate Lillard's growth. He's good enough to have gotten there anyway, even if his draft status would have been lower had Damian declared in 2011.
That's not the point now, though. At this stage in his rookie year Lillard not only looks savvy and strong for a rookie, but he's far and away played the best ball of any rookie so far. The expectations will be interesting to watch — Derrick Rose is less than two years older, Kyrie Irving a year and a half younger — based on our recent unfamiliarity with watching 22-year old rookies set the world on fire. These guys are usually 19 when they make their big introduction to the NBA scene, and grow with great strides from there.
Still, for now the up and down Blazers have someone who is uniquely equipped as a rookie to play the 38.5 minutes a night he plays. And, most importantly, carry a team when it needs it the most.
It may have been a 10:40 start on the East Coast, but it was nice for Damian Lillard to re-introduce himself to the TNT crowd (his first time out wasn't as spellbinding) so effectively.
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