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Damian Lillard Is Out-Currying Steph Curry

The NBA this season has missed the presence of two-time MVP Stephen Curry, who broke his left hand in October. But Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard has done his best to fill the void, giving us a pretty fantastic remix lately of what makes Curry’s playing style so fascinating. And what Lillard is doing might be even more impressive than what the Golden State superstar gave us a few years back.

Consider what Lillard has averaged his last six games: Almost 49 points per game — the third-best scoring run over a six-game span in the past 20 years — to go with 10 assists and seven boards per contest, while shooting 55 percent overall and an insane 57 percent from three. (The top scoring run of Curry’s career was a five-game stretch in February and March 2016, when he notched 41.6 points, 6.6 dimes and 5 rebounds and shot 58 percent overall and 55 percent from deep.)

Yet to say that Lillard has merely shot “from three” feels disingenuous when you actually look at where he’s launched a chunk of his attempts. According to NBA.com’s stats page, he has sunk 13 triples of 30 feet or more out of 21 attempts (57 percent) since Jan. 20, including a few that required just one dribble after crossing half-court.

We’ve obviously seen Dame connect from unthinkable distances before. Who could forget the ice-cold dagger he lofted over the outstretched arm of Paul George last postseason, which not only won the Blazers a series but also effectively ended the Russell Westbrook era in Oklahoma City?

And yes, comparisons between Lillard and Curry have been made before — and we have even labeled Lillard and CJ McCollum a less dominant version of the Warriors’ Splash Brothers. Still, this recent streak from Lillard is noteworthy for a whole host of reasons. Aside from the fact that he’s doing the heavy lifting for a Portland club that desperately needs it — the Blazers, fighting for the eighth seed, have won five of six — Lillard’s quick-strike offense is opening up a ton of looks for his teammates because of how defenses are gearing up to try to stop him.

“Teams are trying to get more aggressive and make it harder for me,” said Lillard, who has notched 61, 47, 50, 36, 48 and 51 points in his six most recent outings.

More and more, that ramped-up aggression has come in the form of defenses either trapping or doubling him as he runs his pick-and-roll sequences, a tactic that’s long been used to try to keep Curry’s unbelievable range in check. (But one that was incredibly risky against Golden State because of how many lethal shooters the Warriors could put on the floor at one time.)1 In fact, foes have tried blitzing Lillard’s screen and rolls six times per game since late January, more than double the number he was seeing prior to his hot streak, per Second Spectrum data.

Even as the defenses have grown more suffocating, Lillard has almost always made the right reads, sporting a better than 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio during this span. Center Hassan Whiteside has been a direct beneficiary of the Lillard blanketing, shooting 75 percent the past six games while averaging 19 points, almost 15 rebounds and four blocks per contest.

The enigmatic big man’s emergence comes as the Blazers’ wing players — McCollum, Gary Trent Jr. and Trevor Ariza, among others — have also made the most of Lillard’s surge. The club, already one of the league’s best from the perimeter, has knocked down 48 percent of its wide-open triples over the past six contests, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Lillard’s lack of space likely has everything to do with why he’s pulling up from so far away: It’s the only way he can get a relatively uncontested look at the basket anymore. (We’ve written about this concept in the past as it pertains to the Rockets’ offense.)

But Dame has put defenders in Catch-22 scenarios all season, really. If you don’t pick him up immediately after half-court, he’ll comfortably fire from 35 feet away. When you send two players at him, he’s finding the open man, and his teammates aren’t missing. If you push too far up on him, he’ll drive past you to draw the foul and get to the line, which he’s doing at a career-high rate this season. And even if you’re in his face — not too far up, or too far back — he’s hit more threes when being guarded tightly this season than any other player in the league.

Dame’s play of late almost makes you appreciative of how poor the Blazers’ defense often is. In a way, the team’s inability to stop its opponents simply means that Lillard will have more incentive as a scorer to keep pulling rabbits out of his Abe Lincoln-sized hat from night to night.

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Footnotes

  1. Interestingly, Lillard had actually been blitzed almost 100 times more than anyone during the prior five seasons — even Curry — according to Second Spectrum. Again, the abundance of shooting around Curry likely made it less appealing to run at him instead of someone like Lillard.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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