The Blazers’ team defense needs an intervention but at least rookie Damian Lillard continues his personal quest to become a better defender. If there was a silver lining to the absence of Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum — the two designated stoppers on the perimeter — it is that their injuries have opened the door for Lillard to take on more defensive assignments.
Lillard, the 6-foot-3 point guard, has so much confidence in his promising ability to stay in front of elite scorers, that last Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Lakers he left his own man to pick up the 6-foot-6 shooting guard Kobe Bryant. Through the first half against the Lakers, Lillard solely defended in a total of 10 half-court sets and nine came against Bryant.
“I was watching video with him (Thursday) and we were going over a specific play and (saw the) switch,” assistant coach David Vanterpool said. “I looked at him, I said, ‘You wanted the switch, didn’t you?’ “
Lillard’s response: “Hell yeah.”
“That’s what it is now. He wants to switch. He wants to be on Kobe. He wants to be on whoever the best player on the other team is,” Vanterpool continued. “Welcoming those types of challenges, it’s showing me that — first of all, he’s really confident in some of the stuff that we’ve been working on defensively.”
Willingness aside, Lillard did not exactly slow down Bryant.
Lillard gave up size and strength to the veteran Bryant who recognized the mismatch and chose to post-up the rookie seven times and run isolation in the other two plays. In those seven post-ups, Bryant made four jump shots, got fouled once for free throws and threw the ball away. Lillard only forced one miss as Bryant was on his way to rewriting the Blazers’ record books. Bryant scored 47 points, the most ever by an opponent in the Rose Garden.
In spite of the difficult defensive night, Lillard — who finished with a career-high 38 points — took another step forward in becoming a multi-dimensional player. Vanterpool sees the progression and believes the rest of the NBA will soon take notice, too.
“Defensively, I think he’s gotten exponentially better,” Vanterpool said. “To the point where, I don’t think people realize just how good defensively he is now but they will by next season.”