This game tonight is pretty big. For the Utah Jazz it gives them their first 50 win season since 2009-2010, while keeping them ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers. For the Portland Trail Blazers it gives them half of the condition they need to clinch their spot in the 2017 NBA Playoffs. (The other half is that they need the Oklahoma City Thunder to beat the Denver Nuggets, which is likely to happen.) Aside from Rudy Gobert, who will be unchecked in the middle against the injured ghosts of Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis, and Festus Ezeli, there’s no more vital piece tonight than Damian Lillard.
Yes, Lillard is also going to be going up against back-ups as starter George Hill and rotation player Raul Neto are both out. But implicitly so, Lillard has been a terror against the Jazz. And he’s doing it his entire career.
In the 18 games he’s faced Utah - where he went to college at Weber State University - he has averages of 23.44 ppg (1.30 PPS), 4.28 rpg, 5.89 apg (2.61 to 1.00 assist to turn over ratio), 0.72 spg, and 0.22 bpg. He’s also dropping 2.67 threes a game, all in 36.28 mpg. Worse still, he’s 11-7 where it counts, the score board.
Yeah, offensively he’s been a barbarian out there at point guard. His ability to hurt Utah with jumpers has been a killer. Yes, he also helps with the dishes - but it’s not like he’s averaging a double-double. And it’s not like he’s making the Jazz hurt when he’s playing defense either. He’s not making a huge impact anywhere EXCEPT scoring. And he’s scored enough to hurt the Jazz just with that. Nine games of 20+ points, three games of 30+ points. Almost 40 that one time!
The last two games weren’t so hot for him. And they were losses as well. So let’s break down his win / loss splits.
In wins he is not just a terror, but a terrorist. He’s scoring more points while taking fewer shots. The assists also go up, and so does his defensive abilities to force turn overs. He’s dropping three threes a night in wins. And his PPS (Points per Shot) value is Hall of Fame level.
This means he’s getting to the line more, and making more of his outside shots. He’s more effective and efficient on offense. The barbarian has turned into a surgeon. And he operates on the Jazz.
What about losses? Yeah, in losses the barbarian turns into a brawler. The lack of precision is underscored by the lack of overall strength. He swings, but doesn’t always hit. And when he hits, he isn’t hitting that hard.
His points per game are down by nearly five, while he’s taking more shots a game in losses than he is in wins or overall. His 143 points to 131 shots ends up being 1.09 PPS. Which is “volume Al the Conqueror” era ball. He hurts the other team when he scores, but he hurts his team by the insistence on shooting.
In the last 10 games Lillard’s club has gone 6-4. And in that time Damian has scored 39, 35, 30, 28, 25, 23, 21, 19, 16, and 13 points. That’s an average outing of 24.90 ppg, off of 19.10 fga. I don’t know what the trend is, up or down. He went for 30+ points in three of four games, and then in the last two went for 13 and 16.
Can the Utah Jazz defense keep him under 20 points for three straight games? If they can it could precipitate another Jazz win. Or will tonight be something really different altogether: a Jazz win while Lillard goes off?
Whatever the case, it’s pretty clear that Lillard is really the focus of the defensive attention tonight. He’s have a great season and combine with C.J. McCollum to produce an explosive scoring backcourt. You know, not unlike John Wall and Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards: a team that went 0-2 against the Jazz in their games they played after the All-Star break this year.
Can the Jazz do the same tonight against Portland? They have a shot at it if they keep Lillard quiet. That’s for sure.