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The Blazers Need Dame Time on the Clock Even With an Improved Bench

Slumps come and go, but a strengthened reserve corps will only go so far if Portland’s talisman isn’t taking over the end of games like he’s renowned for

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For nearly a decade now, Damian Lillard has been the answer to just about every important question facing the Trail Blazers—especially in crunch time. Lillard’s litany of hero-ball highlights have made him one of the NBA’s most feared players with the clock ticking down, a perennial top pick as the player you most want taking the shot with the game on the line. So with Portland trailing late in Cleveland on Wednesday, staring down the barrel of a winless road trip, it was no surprise that head coach Chauncey Billups put the ball in Lillard’s hands. Or that Lillard—despite struggling with his shot in the season’s opening weeks—quickly delivered a foot-on-the-logo 3 and a dish for a CJ McCollum layup to cut the deficit to two.

One-possession game, three minutes left: We’ve seen Lillard take over in these scenarios on countless occasions. As has often been the case early this season, though, Dame Time wasn’t quite on time:

With a chance to tie the game at 103, Lillard smoked a layup off the backboard. A wide-open pull-up 3 that could’ve gotten Portland within one clanged off the front of the rim. Lillard worked a switch onto rookie big man Evan Mobley, but got nothing out of it, as the no. 3 draft pick smothered Dame’s drive and swatted his layup. A two-on-one break on the next possession came up empty, too, as Lillard threw a touch pass to where he thought Anfernee Simons would be, only to see his teammate fall down and the ball bounce harmlessly out of bounds. (Though if you want to put that one on the refs for not whistling Darius Garland for the contact that dropped Simons, I won’t fight you in a public square.)

Lillard did give Portland one more chance with an and-1 layup in the final minute. But his last-ditch side-step 3 over the outstretched arm of Jarrett Allen—like so many of his other deep attempts this season—went awry, sealing another win for the plucky Cavs and dropping the Blazers to 3-5.

“It’s an even tougher situation when I’m not in my regular form offensively,” Lillard told reporters after the loss. “I think a game like tonight, if I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, making shots, I could have got this game done.”

Dame’s not the only player who hasn’t been in his regular form to start the season. Offense has been down across the NBA through the first couple of weeks, with free throw attempts at all-time lows, turnover rates as high as they’ve been since 2015, and plenty of scorers seemingly still searching for their range and rhythm. Lillard’s struggles, though, have been among the league’s most pronounced: Of the 37 players who averaged at least 20 points per game in 2020-21 and have earned court time this season, only Nikola Vucevic has seen his scoring average drop more precipitously (by 9.6 points per game) than Lillard (9.3), and only Kristaps Porzingis (who has played just three games before being sidelined by lower back stiffness) has seen his true shooting percentage decline more sharply (by 18.5 percent) than Lillard (16.4 percent).

Some of the dip could owe to persistent abdominal issues that bothered Lillard during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo and flared up against Cleveland—though Dame eschewed that explanation after the loss to the Cavs, saying he’d been playing through those, quite successfully, for years. Some of it might stem from the NBA switching from Spalding basketballs to Wilsons, which several players have suggested feel different—though McCollum was quick to clarify that he wasn’t blaming his 7-for-19 shooting performance on the ball. And, as has been the case for several other stars, some of it could be chalked up to the NBA’s “interpretive change in the officiating” of moves intended not to try to score, but rather to draw fouls.

Lillard doesn’t have the same reputation for foul hunting as James Harden or Trae Young, but he has finished in the top 10 in free throw attempts in each of the past five seasons, and he too has seen that portion of his offensive portfolio take a hit. He’s drawing shooting fouls on a career-low 7.8 percent of his field goal attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass, and shooting just 4.2 free throws per 36 minutes of floor time, his fewest since his rookie campaign. Forays into the paint that might previously have ended in a trip to the stripe now produce only skewed shots and swallowed whistles. Dame, like many other top scorers, will have to recalibrate his approach:

Due in part to those empty trips in traffic, the six-time All-Star hasn’t shot this poorly in the restricted area since 2016. The bigger issue, though, has been outside, where Lillard is making just 23.4 percent of his 3-point attempts—far and away the worst mark of his 10-year career. He’s misfiring in just about every way possible: front-rimming stepbacks and banging what used to be automatic pull-ups off the heel; he’s bricking both off-the-catch and off-the-dribble attempts, having shots bounce in and out after being halfway down, just flat-out missing everything, you name it.

The silver lining to the gray cloud of Dame’s rocky start is that, while this is a particularly brutal rough patch, it’s not his first. He’s had slumps before ...

… and he’s come out of them pretty well. In the 15 games after that 2015 slide, Lillard shot 46 percent from the field, getting off the schneid and helping propel Portland to a postseason berth. About three weeks after his cold snap in 2016, he scored 28 points and drilled four 3s in a Game 6 to win a playoff series. Things can change awfully quickly once a sniper like Lillard sees the ball go through the net a few times; for now, he seems content to just stick to his script, believing more in nine years of résumé-building than in eight rocky games.

“I always look at struggles as an opportunity to show my true character,” Lillard told reporters after going 7-for-20 from the floor in a loss to a 76ers team playing without Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and (as you might have heard) Ben Simmons. “When things go great, there’s a lot of praise that comes along with that. But I think it says more when you are going through something and shit is kind of hitting the fan and you are struggling, and everybody has something to say. To me, the real ones, they can keep on truckin’ and keep on going and still find a way to get the job done.”

For the Blazers, though, getting it done will require more than just Lillard thawing out. McCollum’s doing his part to shoulder the scoring load, averaging 23.4 points per game and drilling 42.9 percent of the nearly 10 3-pointers he’s taking per game, but that has come alongside a sharp drop in his assist-to-turnover ratio, from 3.4-to-1 last season down to 1.5-to-1 in 2021-22. But while Portland could use a steadier hand from its secondary playmaker, it really needs more of just about everything from the tallest member of its would-be big three.

After offseason stories trumpeting how energized Jusuf Nurkic was by Billups taking over and how excited he was to play a more central playmaking role, the two-way linchpin has looked … pretty similar to the trick-or-treat dude who lined up in the middle for former Blazers coach Terry Stotts. The Bosnian center is averaging fewer frontcourt touches per game than he has since he was a part-time player in Denver. He’s taking fewer shots per 36 minutes than ever. His assist rate is half of what it was last season and he’s turning the ball over on nearly 20 percent of the possessions he’s using—a tough recipe for the sort of inside-out, ball-movement-heavy offensive style Billups wants to play. He scored just 13 points on 12 shots combined in the losses to Cleveland and Philadelphia, getting roundly outplayed by Allen and Andre Drummond.

The biggest issue, though: Neither Nurkic nor his teammates look fully comfortable yet in Portland’s new defensive scheme, which calls on big men to come up to the level of the screen in the pick-and-roll rather than drop back to protect the rim, the more conservative game plan Stotts favored.

A higher line and more ball pressure at the point of attack can crank up the heat and induce mistakes; the Blazers are forcing turnovers on 14.1 percent of opponents’ possessions, which ranks just 18th in the NBA this season, but would be Portland’s most disruptive unit in nine years. Those high rewards come married to high risks, though. Smart opponents will string the play out, knowing that quick passes and hard drives can dismantle a defense predicated on frenetic rotation, creating the kind of high-value scoring chances that Philly and Cleveland feasted on:

More than 41 percent of opponents’ shots against the Blazers are coming from 3-point land, a bottom-five mark—one big reason Portland, despite its sea changes, still ranks just 24th in points allowed per possession.

“We’re not doing a good job keeping the ball in front of us,” Billups told reporters after the loss in Cleveland. “We’re getting beat too quick. Our defense is designed to help and help your buddy, but when you get beat in one dribble, the help can’t even be there yet. And now you start trying to recover and help, teams start making shots, and it puts you in a really tough spot.”

Developing comfort and consistency with a brand-new style of play takes time, and Billups has called for calm: “We have to be realistic about where we are, and where we need to go. That shit don’t happen in a week or two weeks. … There are a lot of habits that need to be broken, and it takes a level of patience to break them.”

But patience runs thin quickly when you’re losing. If the help doesn’t start getting there more often defensively, then none of the other help Portland’s getting—Simons and Nassir Little both shooting better than 42 percent from deep, an efficient 17 points per game from Norman Powell—will matter all that much.

The Blazers’ reserve units have been better thus far; they’ve outscored opponents when Dame’s off the floor, a feat they couldn’t manage in any of the past five seasons. But this team will only go as far as its starting five—Lillard, McCollum, Powell, Nurkic, and Robert Covington, the group in which president of basketball operations Neil Olshey believes so fervently—will take it. Last season, that lineup blitzed opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. In the playoffs, it stomped the Nuggets by 20.8 points-per-100. This season? It’s a much more modest plus-2.7-per-100.

That’s not going to be enough to take Portland very far. Changing that starts—as everything has in Portland for a decade—with Lillard. “I do see it as a challenge, and it’s one that I accept,” he recently told reporters. If he rises to it, the reimagined Blazers could well make some noise in the West. If not, though, Billups’s edition of the club could bump its head on the same ceiling that Stotts’s did—and the only noise in Portland will be the familiar sound of a ticking clock.