Lillard set for his next big challenge

Blazers guard gets national attention after Laker game

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

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On Thursday morning, Portland Trail Blazers rookie Damian Lillard moved back into the national spotlight with a radio interview on The Dan Patrick Show.

Lillard, who was reaping well-deserved attention after his 38-point performance against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday, revealed to Patrick that he would rather face the scoring rage from a taller, stronger player alone before he would request a double-team, help defender.

Lillard relishes in those defensive challenges. And he won't have to wait long to satisfy this thirst for another compelling showdown.

The Oklahoma City Thunder and All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook roll into the Rose Garden on Friday night, presenting another difficult test for the streaking Blazers (33-45) and another dare for the ultra-competitive Lillard.

"I think the (most fun) part is the fact that he's going to challenge you every time," Lillard said about Westbrook, who leads all NBA point guards with a 23.4 point-per-game average. "It's been possessions where he has come down and tried to go at me five possessions in a row and score."

Although the two point guards are both listed at 6-foot-3, Westbrook appears to have a size advantage over Lillard. In spite of the physical disparity, Lillard — still reigning atop the rookie class at 19.1 points and 6.5 assists per game — has executed the defensive assignment with relative success.

Westbrook has averaged his customary 23 points through the three previous matchups against the Blazers, but had to work to get there as his 42.8 field-goal percentage reflects so-so shooting performances.

"He's active," Lillard said. "He's always a tough cover. Any time there's a challenge like that, I'm all for it."

The timing of this upcoming game parallels the last Thunder-Blazer matchup played at the Rose Garden. Entering that Jan. 13 game, Lillard was fresh from his homecoming in Oakland when he had scored 37 points, which at the time was his NBA best. Similarly, Lillard will enter this Westbrook face-off after another 'star-is-born' moment when he nearly matched Kobe Bryant basket for basket and set a new career high scoring total.

Another unexpected link: Bryant has directed public Twitter praise to only two rivals this year: Westbrook and now, Lillard.

With the Laker game in the past, but the limelight still trained on Lillard, the rookie point guard views Friday night as more than just a personal duel with Westbrook.

"I think everybody wants to win," Lillard said about the Blazers, currently on a season-long nine-game losing streak. "At this point, it's pride that we're playing for. We don't want to have the type of season that we had and then just go out like this. So we've got to finish strong."

Even so, when the one-on-one challenge against Westbrook presents itself, Lillard said he will compete as expected.

"I won't yell 'help,' " Lillard said.