Damian Lillard’s numbers over the last two weeks look more at home in a virtual world.
Remember his 51-point performance against the Jazz last Saturday, the one where he also threw 12 assists and turned the ball over only twice? It was probably his fourth-best game among his last eight heading into Friday’s game at the Jazz.
His 61-point game against the Warriors came with 10 rebounds and seven assists. He had a 50-point, 13-assist game against Indiana. And while he only — imagine, using the word “only” in this context — scored 48 points against the Lakers, he also added 10 assists, nine rebounds and two steals on that night to get a win against the West’s best team.
All of those games, of course, were wins. He did score 47 and lose to the Mavericks the night before the Pacers game, unable to drag his teammates on that night. And on the night of his one slip-up recently, a nationally televised game against the Nuggets, he scored 21 points as the Blazers crashed hard in a playoff rematch, losing by 28.
In this stretch, he’s won accolades. He was named the NBA’s Player of the Week twice to end January. He was the second reserve player selected in Thursday’s All-Star draft — first was Giannis Antetokounmpo’s teammate, Khris Middleton. He’s the first player to average 45 points and 10 assists over a six-game stretch, and also the first to make at least six 3s in six games in a row.
How does Lillard explain his hot streak? Well, he’s never been both in this much of a groove and this good of a player at the same time.
“I just think I’m a better player than I was the last time that I was maybe this sharp,” Lillard told The Oregonian. “That’s part of growth and the process and how your career unfolds, I guess. I’ve been here mentally before. As far as preparation, I’ve probably stepped that stuff up a level because I’ve learned.”
One man who knows the work Lillard puts in as well as anyone else is Weber State basketball coach Randy Rahe, who could be seen talking with his former star guard as he warmed up for Friday’s game. The two still clearly have a good rapport.
And that preparation has made him as difficult to guard as anyone in the NBA. Because he can shoot from the logo at half court, teams have to guard him out there. But that opens up the whole court for him to attack: He’s fast enough to get past anyone guarding him deep, then can either finish at the rim, or pass it to one of his open teammates if the defense rotates.
“I think he’s mixing up getting to the rim and deep 3s, which really open things up for him as well,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "His passing is probably being overlooked because of how well he’s scoring.”
Teams that want to defend him have to choose something to take away — they can’t take it all. Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s criticism with his team last time was that they took nothing away in a blowout Portland win.
“Sometimes it’s ‘hey let’s do the same thing, let’s do it better.’ Other times, ‘let’s adjust.’ Sometimes it’s usually somewhere in the middle,” Snyder said. "But I think on the back end, certainly if he gets 15 3s and he gets fouled and he gets assists, then we didn’t do very well. You’ve got to take something away. Try to take away as much as you can.”
The Jazz were clear in Friday’s shootaround that their defensive strategy would be “more aggressive” than Saturday’s action. But that’s the thing about Lillard, one his playoff opponents know well: Sometimes, it’s just ‘Dame Time,’ and he can’t be stopped.
“I’m out of superlatives,” Stotts said after Saturday’s win against the Jazz. "Don’t ask me to explain it, he’s just playing exceptional basketball.”