Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the Damian Lillard Experience.
In a game where the Golden State Warriors looked as if they were heading for a blowout, Oakland native Lillard made sure that the fans at Oracle Arena — including many of his own friends and family — got their money’s worth, scoring 37 points to keep the game respectable and show why he’s the front-runner on the short list of Rookie of the Year candidates.
Aside from Lillard, however, the Blazers looked downright awful at times, clearly worn out from an emotional win last night against the Miami Heat. They were often a step slow on their defensive rotations, meaning lots of easy buckets on dump-off passes around the basket for Golden State, as well as wide open looks for shooters coming off screens. Leading by as much as 20 at one point, it’s a wonder the Warriors let Portland hang around as long as they did.
Not that the Blazers ever gave up. It’s not often that a team can take 43 three-point shots and make only 15 of them and still be down only three points with 17.1 seconds to play. Yet that’s exactly what Portland did, riding a huge second half from their star rookie point guard, who didn’t even get into double figures until approximately the four minute mark of the third quarter.
As Stephen Curry told CSN Bay Area’s Ric Bucher immediately after the game, “Lillard got hot. Not to take away from his talent and his game, he made the shots. But we have to find a way to stop a guy if he’s got it going like that, and not give him too many open looks.”
But as they say in the sports world, the win-loss column doesn’t care about style points, and for a young team like the Warriors, there is plenty to learn from a game like this, in the short-term and the long-term.
Mark Jackson echoed that sentiment in his post game comments, and he was quick to mention how well his team played for the first 36 minutes. He stated, “We took care of the basketball. Twenty-eight assists…we were unselfish on the offensive end. This is preparing us.”
He added: “Where we expect to go, in those games, you’re going to have to find ways to stop special players, and this is great preparation for us.”
Ultimately it’s up to Mark Jackson, Mike Malone and the rest of the coaching staff to figure out exactly how they’re going to stop these types of special players, but coming off of two straight losses against playoff-caliber competition, this was a big win for a team that needed an ego boost going into a tough stretch of the schedule.
While Jackson must be pleased with the productivity he got from Harrison Barnes and Carl Landry, the barometer of success is always measured by how your stars play, and Stephen Curry and David Lee were both up to the task tonight. It’s not an oversimplification to say that when Curry and Lee are on point, the Warriors will at the very least be in the game no matter who they’re playing.
Tonight, behind Lee’s 24 points and 10 rebounds and Curry’s 22 points and 12 assists, Golden State made tremendous strides in gaining the experience they’ll need come playoff time, and the ability to close games like these out — especially when the opposition has a player like Lillard that can catch fire and put his team on his back in crunch time — is often the difference between a good team and a great team.
In the Warriors case, it may be that they are simply a young, relatively inexperienced squad that has to learn how to make that shift from good to great, and wins like this go a long way towards boosting their confidence and figuring out how to put the boot on the metaphorical throat of a team when they have them on the ropes.
So when Curry finds Landry for a layup to put the Dubs up six with 24.7 seconds left, and Lillard comes back and immediately hits a three, and Curry calmly sinks two free throws to effectively put the game away, this is part of the process he has to go through in order to become the leader his team is going to need in the spring.
Now on to Denver, where the next test awaits.