PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Portland leading scorer Damian Lillard has had a difficult time with a hovering Golden State defense and, with his team facing elimination from the NBA Western Conference finals, the Trail Blazer All-Star has a decision to make.
Should he shoot with reckless abandon, or continue to entrust his team mates to try and take advantage of the scoring opportunities presented by the Warriors?Golden State’s strategy has turned Lillard from a cold-blooded shooter to a cautious deliberator while the reigning NBA champions have grabbed a 3-0 best-of-seven series lead. They can sweep the series with a win in Portland on Monday.
“I think what they want me to do is make the correct play (by passing the ball),” Lillard told Reuters following his team’s 110-99 Game Three loss on Saturday.
“But I think in Golden State’s mind they know at some point if we’re going to beat them, I’m going to have to be rolling.
“They’re just banking on the fact that we’ll just live with what’s happening, get the ball out of (my) hands and at some point (they’ll) probably be able to take over the game.”The Warriors have played those percentages perfectly in their last two victories, which saw Blazers supporting players start strong but lose leads of 17 and 18 points respectively.
The game script has sapped Lillard of his identity.
The four-time All Star, whose jersey number 0 might as well represent the number of opponents he fears, has been surprisingly hesitant.
‘The Shot’ that Lillard made in the first-round playoff clincher against Oklahoma City, a 37-foot bomb, seems like a season ago.
Against the Warriors, Lillard had just 12 field goal attempts in Game One, 16 in Game Two and a deceptive 18 on Saturday when he tried to rally his team.For the series, Lillard is shooting 32% and averaging 20.3 points, down from 29 over the first two playoff rounds.”I think the double teams, obviously the trapping, is designed to get the ball out of his hand so he doesn’t have the same freedom,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
“Some of it is missing shots. He gets to the rim; he hasn’t finished around the rim as well. I don’t know if it’s one thing. Getting him some easier shots is tough.”
Lillard tried to find easier looks on Saturday by attacking before Golden State set its defense. But the approach led to some rushed and awkward shots during a rough 19-point night. After a while, Lillard became resigned to absorbing the defense and moving the ball along.
It worked for a period, and Portland big man Meyers Leonard broke out with a career playoff-high 16 points, but it did not last.
“Two guys staying with me, and then Draymond (Green) is lurking behind them,” Lillard said.”You know, you go up against a wall of defense, sometimes it’s three defenders. It’s tough because you’re not always going to get a quality look, and then when you do get a quality look and don’t make it, that just kind of makes it worse.”
Blazers sidekick CJ McCollum said Golden State’s approach should come as no surprise and will pose the same challenge on Monday.
“That’s what elite defenses do,” McCollum said. “They make it difficult on you, and try to get the other guys to beat you.”
Editing by Gene Cherry and Ken Ferris