Can Damian Lillard Be Contained?
Damian Lillard's game-winning buzzer-beater to close out the Rockets in Game 6 pretty much summed up his spectacular first-round series. To Blazer and Lillard fans, his recent success comes as no surprise. The Oakland, California product has been crazy good in his first two years in the league, as he's shown signs of a superstar waiting to break out. And now, it looks like he's here.
Lillard's By the Numbers
Lillard has put up some great numbers this year for Rip City. He's the 19th ranked player according to our metrics here at numberFire, posting a 7.5 nERD and 2.0 efficiency rating, both good for second on his team.
In addition to being an efficient player, the former Weber State standout has shown that he's an offensive juggernaut and a defense's worst nightmare. In the regular season, Lillard averaged 20.7 points per game, amassing enough points for 11th in the league. Lillard's wide range of offensive firepower is what makes him so tough to check, as he can get it done from the outside and the inside. He's proven that he can flat-out shoot the three, ranking third in made three-pointers, trailing only the "Splash Brothers." But he's also effective on the dribble. He ranked 13th in the league in total free throw attempts, and he shoots 87% (good enough for 8th in the league) when he does get to the charity stripe.
Like I said though, Lillard is not a one-trick pony. He sure can score, but he also ranked 13th in the league in total assists with 5.6 helpers per game. With this combination of shooting and passing skills, Lillard ranked 12th in the regular season in offensive win shares (7.8) and 18th in total win shares (9.6).
Lillard's regular season success has definitely carried over to the playoffs thus far. In the six games against the Rockets, he averaged 25.5 points and 6.7 assists per contest (7th and 6th in the playoffs respectively), shooting 49% from three (7th) with a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 66% (1st among all guards). These kind of numbers have helped Lillard to contribute a playoffs-leading 1.2 offensive win shares to his team with an offensive rating of 135.5 points per 100 possessions, trailing only one other player in that category and leading the next best guard by 11.9. Lillard has been an offensive show all year, but how has he performed against his second-round opponent, the Spurs?
Lillard vs. The Spurs
In four regular season matchups against the Spurs, Lillard was right at his playoff average with 25 points per game. He also averaged 6 assists and 5 rebounds against San Antonio. In the two games in Portland, Lillard shot well, hitting 54% of his shots from the field with 28 points per game. In the Blazers' two trips to San Antonio, Lillard didn't shoot as well, as he shot 39% from the field while only managing 22 points per game. In the season series, Lillard averaged an offensive rating of 120 points per 100 possessions, marginally below his playoff average. He had his ups and downs versus the Spurs, but the Blazers did split the season series.
While the Spurs did an alright job on Lillard in the regular season, they could do much better. And there is no doubt that Lillard is looking as good - if not better - than he ever has. So what can the Spurs do to slow this guy down? I decided to look much deeper into the previous matchups - in fact, I watched every Damian Lillard shot attempt (all 75 of them) courtesy of NBA.com. Outside the individual matchups, I saw one common problem the Spurs presented for Lillard: their length on helping and switching on pick and rolls affected Lillard's ability to shoot off of the pick immediately. They must continue to do so to help whoever is covering Lillard one-on-one. But who should the Spurs send out to keep Lillard in check?
Who's Got Zero?
I can first tell you who it shouldn't be. Despite their respective defensive ratings of 101 and 103 respectively, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili can't keep up with Lillard. His quickness is too much for the taller Green and the older Ginobili, and he clearly displayed that by shooting 58% from the floor against the two in the four regular season showdowns. In those matchups, he saw a very limited amount of Kawhi Leonard, probably, in large part because Nic Batum demands his own attention. But in a very small sample size, Leonard held Lillard to 25% shooting, so if Lillard is the one scoring all the Blazers' points, Pop may want to slide Leonard over to Lillard and leave Batum to Green and Ginobili.
To start the series though, we're likely to see Tony Parker and Patrick Mills matched up on Lillard. The two were matched up on Lillard for 42 of his 75 (56%) field goal attempts in the four regular season meetings, and they really didn't do all that bad. Parker held him to 9/24 (38%) shooting while Mills held him to 8/18 (44%). I did notice, however, that Mills struggled against Lillard's drive, particularly off the pick and roll. If Lillard is in his aggressive state of mind, this may prove troublesome for the Spurs.
So, after all of this, Parker, Lillard's counterpart, may be the most formidable defender for the sophomore. Parker's greatest weakness may be his greatest strength when it comes to guarding Lillard - his advanced age. Parker may be susceptible to Lillard's athleticism on the isolation and drive, but his experience may prove useful in guarding Lillard. He seems to know when to press up on Lillard and push him into traffic, and when to back off and let his big men disrupt his timing off the pick. Parker and his experience may be the best chance for the Spurs if they hope to derail Lillard's playoff freight train and ultimately get back to the Western Conference Finals. Can they do it, or will Lillard roll on?