LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Brooklyn Nets implemented an interesting tactic late in the third quarter Thursday night in what was a must-win game for the Portland Trail Blazers to qualify for the play-in round of the NBA restart.
Damian Lillard — the hottest player in the NBA Bubble — received the inbounds pass and proceeded to casually dribble up the court to set up the offense. But on this trip up the floor, he noticed something unfamiliar.
Before he even reached half court, two defenders blitzed him, forcing him to pass to his release valve early. “Logo Lillard” is what he’s dubbed for his penchant to pull up and hit from the league logo from near half-court with regularity.
“I’ve never [seen that] before. Maybe once, but not like that,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports after the Blazers’ 134-133 victory to claim the eighth seed in the West. “Like, bruh. Even when they were in a zone, they boxed-and-one. We ran our zone offense and [a defender] just followed me around and denied me.”
That defensive approach on Lillard first proved successful in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, when the six-seeded New Orleans Pelicans shocked the basketball world and swept the third-seeded Trail Blazers. The traps came so frequently for Lillard in that series, and for the most part, he tried to play the right way and simply trust his teammates by giving up the ball and hoping they would capitalize on a 4-3 advantage.
Portland was unable to consistently capitalize in those situations, though, and whatever rhythm Lillard had was disrupted. The narrative many people latched onto from that series was that Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday shut down Lillard when it was rarely a one-on-one situation.
When Lillard saw Brooklyn commit to trapping him early, he thought of how he responded two years ago.
“It was harder for me then. I took it hard,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “Every time people mention that [Pelicans] series to me, I just say I got better from that. I improved and I think it has shown. Because tonight, it was even worse than New Orleans with how aggressive and early [the trap] was.”
Lillard had a feeling the traps would resurface at some point, and he put in the work behind the scenes with his teammates to limit their effectiveness.
Sources said Lillard has been in attendance at every optional practice during the restart to watch the young guys play three-on-three. This is his way of showing them that they are valued members of the team, knowing he’s going to need them.
On Thursday, the five-time All-Star put his head down against the Nets, dribbling through the doubles and finessing his way into the paint. He found teammates one pass away for open triples. And on one possession early in the fourth, when the defense forgot to pick him up at half-court, he splashed the ball through the net from the logo.
The right play is to pass the ball once a double is approaching, and two years ago, that’s what he did. It didn’t translate into the result he sought.
Lillard wasn’t going out like that again.
“That’s why I took that deep three,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “I wasn’t going to allow the traps to take me out of the game. I started to attack two defenders sometimes and if they overly sucked in, then I would still throw it out. But I started to search for shots and opportunities. But at the same time, I don’t mind trusting my teammates. I think Gary Trent Jr. has earned our trust. Even if he misses a few in a row, I still have confidence to make that pass ahead to him out of the double. And I got confidence that he’ll make it. So I’m looking at Gary Trent, who has probably made the most threes in the bubble, I’m looking at CJ [McCollum], and I’m looking at Carmelo Anthony. I’m looking at the double-team like, ‘I’m OK with this.’ And tonight we didn’t make shots, but I don’t see many nights where we get those looks and they don’t go in at a high clip.”
Despite the scheme, Lillard finished with game-highs of 42 points and 12 assists in 43 minutes of play.
McCollum, who is dealing with a fracture in his back, scored 25 points and came up with the decisive defensive stop, forcing Caris LeVert into a contested step-back jumper that clanked off the back rim at the buzzer.
After the game, Lillard had a talk with LeVert, who torched the Trail Blazers for 37 points and nine assists.
“I told him he’s nice and to keep hooping,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “Because he is. He really is nice, bruh.”
Portland, went 6-2 in the restart to grab the eighth seed and now will face the Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in round, which starts Saturday with Portland a six-point favorite at BetMGM. The Trail Blazers just have to win one game to advance to a playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers, while the Grizzlies have to win twice on consecutive days.
Now that Lillard has found a balance in how to deal with traps and the extra attention on the court, the Blazers are anything but an easy out. Still, it’s going to take players hitting shots and some stunning performances from Lillard.
“Last year in the Western Conference finals, Golden State did kind of what Brooklyn just did. They just kind of didn’t let me get a look, except they had really experienced, smart players out there doing it and they were aggressive with it,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “And even by the end of that series, the game that we got eliminated in Portland where I missed a shot at the buzzer to win it, I had a good game. I had 28 points and 12 assists in the final game, but it took me time to get going. But I think right now, I’m just growing as a player. I’m figuring out what teams are trying to do and moving from there. I’m finding my ways around it, knowing when to be overly aggressive, when to attack it, what to look for, who to put where to make them react in a way to see how they’re doing it.”
Carmelo Anthony honored
It has been a great comeback story for Carmelo Anthony, who has come up big multiple times for the Trail Blazers in the restart.
But he was recently awarded for his efforts off the court.
Neil Olshey, the Blazers president of basketball operations, presented Anthony with the Maurice Lucas Award on Tuesday.
This annual honor is named after the late Trail Blazer big man to highlight an individual who contributes to their communities and has the support of his teammates and the organization.
In such a short time, Anthony has shown to be well loved in Portland and a valuable member of the Blazers.
Kyrie Irving’s initiative rolling on
The Brooklyn Nets are without numerous players for the restart, but one of their stars is making sure other players aren’t without.
Kyrie Irving, who’s also a vice president of the players association, launched the KAI Empowerment Initiative, a $1.5 million fund he’s dispersing to WNBA players who opted out of their restart for various reasons.
Sources said the deadline for players to submit their request to receive funds from the program was this past Tuesday and the review process is underway. Participants will be notified about their requests on or by Aug. 24, sources said.
It’s an initiative that intends to support women’s basketball moving forward and do its part to ensure equality and social justice.
Jamal Crawford fitting right in
Ever since the Brooklyn Nets signed veteran guard Jamal Crawford for the restart, the organization has raved about his leadership skills and how much his younger teammates respect him.
Sources said Crawford has shown his value in the locker room and demonstrated in his limited practices — due to a hamstring injury — that he’s still an offensive force. The Nets are seriously considering adding him to the roster for the 2020-21 season, sources said.
Nets superstar Kevin Durant has already publicly lobbied for Crawford to stay.
The age gap between Crawford, 40, and his teammates is glaring when you look at the headphones Nets players use pregame to get themselves amped up.
Most of the players have wireless Beats or Apple AirPods, but Crawford is rocking an old pair of Sony wired headphones that has an earphone detached from the swivel.
Crawford’s teammates have tried to persuade him to upgrade, but the three-time Sixth Man of the Year has refused. His wife, Tori, heard enough and shipped her husband a fresh pair of headphones that should arrive in the bubble this weekend.
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