Damian Lillard's New Defensive Mentality: 'I Make it a Point—We're Going to See About That'
The Trail Blazers' newfound depth is allowing Lillard to commit on the defensive end.
On Tuesday night, "Dame Time" came from somewhere you wouldn't expect: the defensive end of the floor.
Damian Lillard hit a deep three with just over three minutes left in a Trail Blazers win over the Spurs that was harder than it needed to be given the talent disparity, and that three was as momentous in the building as a million other shots like that Lillard has hit in the past 11 years. But the biggest play of the game actually came the play before.
With Portland clinging to a one-point lead, Lillard rose up and blocked a Keita Bates-Diop shot attempt, drawing a loose-ball foul in the process to regain possession and set up that three at the other end. He flexed to the crowd like he has many times after hitting a big shot, but doing it after a clutch defensive play was emblematic of the way the Blazers have been winning in a season they've started out 10-4, at the top of the Western Conference.
"I think in the past, we'd be like, 'OK, somebody's gotta get it going [offensively],'" Lillard said after the game. "But the energy on our team now, it feels like, 'We've got to get some stops. We've got to stop them and get some rebounds.' That's the difference."
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Lillard himself has committed to the defensive end this season in a way he never could before. Not because he didn't care or didn't want to, but because too much was asked of him offensively.
"I think people have said things about me defensively without understanding what real responsibility is when you're leading a team and how hard that is," Lillard said. "So I make it a point: We're going to see about that. There's been a lot of those moments, and there are going to be more of those moments where I've got to step in and take that challenge and keep doing it."
In years past, even against a Spurs team gunning for Victor Wembanyama, Lillard would have had to take at least 30 shots to keep the Blazers in a game as sloppy as the one they played Tuesday, which was full of careless turnovers, blown layups and allowing a parade of open looks at the rim for San Antonio.
On Tuesday, Lillard had 22 points on 8-of-20 shooting. He wasn't the Blazers' leading scorer. That would be Jerami Grant, who continued his recent tear with 29, including six three-pointers. He wasn't even their second-leading scorer; that would be Anfernee Simons, who had 23. In fact, outside of the back-to-back 41-point performances in the second and third games of the season against the Suns and Lakers, there hasn't been a classic "Dame Time" takeover game.
They haven't needed that from him. Not when Grant is scoring like this and they have a rookie in Shaedon Sharpe who is capable of giving 13 points off the bench on efficient shooting like he did Tuesday. And with that responsibility off his plate, he's able to affect the game in other ways, like defense and playmaking (he's had two straight double-digit assist games).
Before the game, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked what he sees in this Blazers team compared to years past. He admitted he hasn't watched them much. (What, you expected the 73-year-old coach of a tanking team to be spending his free time watching film of teams they're not competing against in the standings?) But he noted that unlike teams built around Lillard, CJ McCollum and not much else, there are more players capable of carrying the scoring load.
As some people have said going into past seasons, this is the deepest team Lillard has had around him since at least 2015, and maybe ever.
And that has unlocked a new, even more effective and diverse version of Lillard as he enters the early part of his mid-30s.
"Jerami has shown that he can do what he's been doing, and Ant has shown that he can do what he's been doing," Lillard said. "Me being able to trust that, me being comfortable with that and us being able to win games like that really helps, too. I know I'm going to have stretches. There are going to be nights where I've got 45 or 50 points or whatever, but I don't have to lean on that. I don't have to come in feeling like, 'I have to take over the first quarter or the third quarter.' I can play the game. I can be true to the game and pick my spots."
That commitment to the defensive end even led to Lillard volunteering for one of the toughest assignments of the night. Spurs guard Devin Vassell was hot early from beyond the arc, and during the first half, Chauncey Billups called timeout to ask who wanted to guard him. Lillard responded, "I've got him." Billups switched up the defensive assignments at the half, sticking Lillard on Vassell.
Vassell scored just five points in the second half after scoring 16 in the first.
"You've got to want to do it," Lillard said. "If we want to be an elite team, we've all got to be committed to that end of the floor. Especially when we're able to play how we've played offensively where I don't have as much pressure on me … it's even easier for me to be locked in on that end. And when guys see how personal I'm taking it, when we take that challenge like that and care about it, it's infectious."