Mike Malone says Nuggets guarded Damian Lillard "better than most" -- but do the numbers add up?

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Do numbers support Mike Malone's claim about Damian Lillard? originally appeared on NBC Sports Northwest

Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone is a confident man.

In his recent presser with the media he spoke glowingly about how he sees Nikola Jokic fairing in their first-round series against the Blazers; how the series could be a coming-out party for Michael Porter Jr.; and his team’s defense guarding Damian Lillard.

We’ve guarded Damian Lillard better than most teams, and that’s a challenge.

Nuggets HC Mike Malone

He’s right. Holding a guy who will likely be named to first-team All-NBA and finish top five in MVP voting below his averages is a difficult task.

Lillard averaged 28.8 points and 7.5 assists with a slash line of .451/.391/.928.

In three games against the Nuggets, his averages were 23 points and 9.3 assists with a shooting spread of .439/.367/100.

Now yes, the shooting numbers are practically identical. The bright side of looking at Lillard’s numbers against Denver vs. his season averages, is his assists are up. Showing the development in his game not to force anything if the defense is subduing his offense.

A bigger lens look at Lillard's numbers reveals he averaged his 7th fewest points against Denver and, second-fewest against teams he’s played at least three times, and had his 11th worse +/- against them.

Facundo Campazzo was Denver’s leading defender on Lillard in three matchups and held him to 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting (26.7%). 

Monte Morris spent the second most time on Lillard, holding him to 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting (57.1%).

Of course, it takes a team to restrain Lillard and not just one person, but it is worth mentioning Lillard has struggled shooting the ball in the playoffs the past few seasons.

He shot 40.6% in four games against the Lakers a season ago and in 2019 against Denver he got his points but finished with a shooting line of .407/.288/.796. Numbers unrepresentative of who Lillard typically is in the playoffs.

Denver has proven once before in the playoffs and multiple times during the regular-season they can make it difficult for Lillard. Soon enough it'll be answered if they can do it again when it matters most, or will Lillard perform like the All-NBA talent he is.

Time will tell.