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There’s No Show Like Dame Time, but It Does Have a Ceiling

Damian Lillard has taken his crunch-time brilliance to new heights this season, but the one-man band, as breathtaking as it may be, can take the Blazers only so far

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Damian Lillard is doing it again. The Blazers star is on another historic tear similar to his run in the bubble, averaging 31.9 points on 45.9 percent shooting and 8.6 assists over his past 14 games. He has taken his game to new heights since CJ McCollum broke his foot in mid-January, carrying Portland to a 10-5 record in that span and the no. 4 seed in the Western Conference. Dame puts so much pressure on defenses that it almost doesn’t matter who he’s playing with. The Pelicans were his latest victim on Wednesday. He had 43 points and tied a career high with 16 assists, powering the Blazers to their sixth straight win with a thrilling 126-124 victory.

Lillard’s crunch-time brilliance overshadows just how dominant he can be over the course of an entire game. Without McCollum or Jusuf Nurkic, who has been out the past month with a broken wrist, the entire Blazers offense runs through Lillard, who ranks tied for second in the NBA in average time per possession with the ball. He starts the game hunting for his own shot and never stops. His main weapon is his ability to shoot off-the-dribble 3s anywhere on the floor. It’s a shot that warps defenses and alters how the game is played. Most of the league is still trying to figure out how to defend it.

There’s nothing terribly complicated about what he’s doing. Lillard racks up 48.3 percent of his offensive possessions as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. Lillard will call for screen after screen at the top of the key until he’s isolated against a bigger and slower defender. Then he’s just shooting fish in a barrel. Look at how easy it is for him to create 3s against Willy Hernangómez:

That shot sets up the rest of his game. Once he forces Hernangómez to guard him out on the perimeter, he can stroll right by him and get to the rim:

Eventually the defense has to send help, which creates easy passes to his teammates:

The Blazers are rarely ever out of a game, because their best player can always get a matchup against the opposing team’s worst perimeter defender whenever he wants. It would be like if a baseball team could send their best hitter to the plate for every at-bat and he could always hit a line drive at the worst fielder on the opposing team. Lillard has found a glitch in the game. He reverses the normal way we think about basketball because the game becomes easier for him in crunch time. His numbers in those situations this season don’t even make sense: He has scored 82 points on 63.2 percent shooting and is plus-43 in 57 “clutch” minutes. He’s getting rid of the other stuff the Blazers do and punching in his cheat code on every possession.

There aren’t any historical comparisons for what he’s doing. Previous generations of point guards didn’t have the same type of green light to shoot off the dribble. Nor did they have his ability to shoot from so far away. The sheer audacity of Lillard’s game is something we have never seen before. The only relevant comparisons are two other modern guards: Steph Curry and James Harden. They are the only three players in NBA history with seasons where they shot 3s at such a high volume (more than 10 attempts per game) while remaining überefficient on offense (true shooting percentage higher than 60) and regularly setting up their teammates (more than six assists).

Each All-Star puts his own twist on the futuristic style of play. The difference is that Harden and Curry already have found counters when defenses adapt, while Lillard is still searching for his. One of the best defensive responses to the high pick-and-roll has been to blitz and trap with multiple defenders and force the ball out of the hands of the star ball handler. That turns his less-talented teammates into fill-in playmakers and the star into a bystander. New Orleans, one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, was able to correctly execute that strategy only once in crunch time:

That defensive scheme has been the Blazers’ undoing in the Lillard era. The best teams in the NBA play more mobile defenders at center in the playoffs, removing the mismatch and forcing Lillard to pass when opponents trap behind the 3-point line. He can’t be a one-man offense anymore. Look at the pattern in Lillard’s last five playoff defeats: the Lakers in 2020 (Anthony Davis), the Warriors in 2019 (Draymond Green), the Pelicans in 2018 (Davis), and the Warriors in 2017 and 2016.

Harden’s adjustment to that scheme was the realization that he didn’t need the screen in the first place. He was such a dominant scorer that he could isolate against anyone and create an open 3. All the pick-and-roll was doing was inviting the double-team. His ratio of isolations (45 percent of his offensive possessions) to pick-and-rolls (17.9 percent) last season was the inverse of Dame’s.

Harden (6-foot-5 and 220 pounds) is much bigger than either Dame (6-foot-2 and 195 pounds) or Steph (6-foot-3 and 185 pounds). Harden’s built like a tank, which allows him to clear more space with his shoulders, and he has a higher release point due to his length (6-foot-11 wingspan). That makes the stepback 3 a more reliable weapon because fewer defenders can contest it. Dame has to jump backward and put more arc on this shot, while Harden can just use his natural shooting motion:

The comparison with Steph is more instructive because he and Lillard are roughly the same size. Steph doesn’t dominate the ball like Dame or run nearly as many pick-and-rolls. He plays more like a shooting guard, using off-ball screens to move around the court and counting on his teammates to set him up. There’s a massive difference in how the three stars are used on offense:

Damian Lillard vs. Stephen Curry

Categories Dame Steph
Categories Dame Steph
Average time per possession per game 8.7 minutes 5.6 minutes
Pick-and-roll percentage 48.3 29.7
Off-ball screen percentage 3.9 15.9
Catch-and-shoot percentage 13.2 25.6

The downside for the Warriors is that it’s not as easy for Steph to take over games in crunch time. He can’t just call for a screen and make play after play after play. He has to pass the ball and hope that his teammates get it back to him. But his teammates have not been good enough this season to make the system work. Golden State is the no. 7 seed in the West, and there has been a lot of talk about whether it should simplify its offense to allow Steph to dominate the ball.

But the Warriors don’t want to fall into the same trap as the Blazers in the playoffs. The structure of their offense means that Steph, unlike Dame, is just as valuable without the ball as he is with it. His ability to move off the ball forces defenses to double-team him all over the floor and creates huge openings for everyone else.

That’s where Draymond becomes so valuable to Golden State. He can run the offense from the top of the key and find Steph coming off screens all over the floor, and he can set screens for Steph and pass to the open man in four-on-three situations when the defense blitzes the play. A playmaking big man is the natural partner to a pick-and-roll point guard. Draymond unlocks the rest of Steph’s game and gives him a counter for anything the defense throws at him.

Dame has never played with that kind of teammate, and until he does, there’s a ceiling to how far he can go in the playoffs. He has put himself firmly in the MVP discussion over the past month. But Portland still knows how this story ends, even when McCollum and Nurkic return. Eventually, it will run into an elite defense with a mobile center who blitzes Lillard on pick-and-rolls and exposes the fact that his teammates can’t make enough plays to make them pay for it. Dame Time is the most thrilling one-man show in the NBA. The problem is that the clock always runs out.