Damian Lillard was criticized a lot last season for his defense.
This season, Lillard is expending more energy, he’s more experienced and he is making more plays on the defensive end than he did last year.
Two times in the past week, Lillard made two blocks on jumpers. One in the waning moments of their win against the Lakers and another on a Paul George 3-pointer in their win against Indiana, even though George got the ball back and drained a three.
One reason for Lillard being able to spend more energy on the defensive end has been the presence of Mo Williams, who usually takes the responsibility of guarding the other team’s primary ball handler when he is on the court.
“Yeah because he puts a lot of pressure on the ball the last minute and a half he was working his butt off,” Lillard said about Williams’ defense against the Indiana Pacers. “It was some possessions where I was on the other side of the floor and my man was just waiting for a screen. Having a guy that I can interchange with and not have to always be guarding the ball or pushing the ball up against pressure and get us into the offense helps out a lot.”
Something else that has helped the Blazers defensively so far is that head coach Terry Stotts has also been creative in changing match-ups, specifically late in games.
Nicolas Batum has guarded point guards since before Stotts came to Portland and in fourth quarters, Stotts likes to use Batum’s length on opposing point guards.
But it’s not just Batum’s length on point guards that Stotts feels comfortable with.
Stotts says that he knows that Lillard is not afraid of bigger guards posting him up. He prefers to execute the switch later on in games, citing that the switch takes a lot of energy for both Lillard and Batum.
“I take that like I’m not strong enough or a mouse in the house type thing,” he said in preseason when it comes to guys thinking they can post him up. “I’m not going to back down and get pushed under.”
“I think he’s been very effective guarding the post,” said Stotts before Saturday’s loss against Dallas. “Even going back to last season, late in season he really picked up on technique: how to hold his ground, take away angles and then contest shots.”
Teams have been attacking Lillard in the post more than any other guard so far this season.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, he is the only guard to defend at least 30 possessions of post-ups.
Not only that, he’s ranked 21st out of 69 players who have defended at least 30 post-ups in points per possession allowed, surrendering 0.697 points per possession.
Players trying to score on Lillard in the post are shooting 30 percent and that’s after he guarded Dirk Nowitzki in post-ups on switches Saturday night.
Players surrendering more on post-ups include: Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and David West.
“We haven’t been hurt very much at all when he’s guarding a guard who is trying to post him,” Stotts said.
They’ve also been able to bait players who do not have developed NBA post games into going at last year’s Rookie of the Year.
Some players who have attempted to post-up Lillard this season include: Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, Phoenix’s PJ Tucker and Oklahoma City’s Thabo Sefolosha.
Not exactly murderers row of post up players.
Lillard also noted a change in his own mentality.
“Last year I would have took offense to it but I understand it. I’ll be guarding point guards, Nico will be guarding, Wes might guard point guards which means I’ll be guarding bigger people sometimes and be ready for that challenge on the block,” Lillard said.
Ready he was and stingy he has been in the post so far this season.
It will be an interesting development to watch as teams try to attack what they’ve seen as a mismatch.
Mostly, opponents haven’t been successful and it has also helped Portland’s defense as they’ve been far better in the second half of games.
The Blazers surrender 100.4 points per 100 possessions in the second half of games, which is good for eighth in the NBA in second-half defensive efficiency according to NBA.com.