Blazers teammates take it up a notch

Aldridge, Lillard among league's best duos

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

Published:

 
photoLaMarcus Aldridge is part of the fourth highest-scoring duo among teammates in the NBA. He and Damian Lillard combine to average 43.8 points a game.

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Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were the fifth-highest scoring duo in the NBA last season at 40.1 points per game combined. The two leaders for the Trail Blazers are picking things up where they left off.

Through the Blazers first six games, the dynamic duo of Lillard and Aldridge are currently the fourth highest-scoring duo of teammates in the NBA, averaging 43.8 points per game, just ahead of the Clippers' Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

They're still right there even after Lillard had the second worst shooting night of his career, going 1 of 15 against the Kings on Saturday (his worst was 1 for 16 on Feb. 10, 2013 at Orlando).

Lillard said that he and Aldridge have talked about how they need to be at the same level of greatness like other great duos. However, last year they scored a lot too and Portland landed in the lottery.

Lillard says that things are different for the duo this year. They, like other great tandems on winning teams, have some help, too.

"We have a great supporting cast on our team," Lillard said. "It's not like we have to go out there and do everything."

Last year with nearly no bench, Lillard and Aldridge were everything for the Blazers.

When Lillard was on the bench last season, the Blazers were over 10 points per 100 possessions worse than they were when he was on the court, according to stats on NBA.com. When Aldridge sat, the difference from when he was on the floor was nine points per 100 possessions.

"They're both good players, we rely on them to do a lot at both ends of the floor," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of the combination after the win Friday against Sacramento. "Damian makes plays, LA makes plays, we rode LA on the block in the fourth quarter."

Nicolas Batum has seen the consistency for years from Aldridge, but he now sees Lillard finding his way into the point guard elite.

"LA, I'm used to. But Dame, the way he's playing right now is really establishing himself as a top point guard in this league," Batum said.

When asked whether Lillard is getting closer to the likes of Paul or his good friend Tony Parker, Batum chose his words carefully.

"Of course, he's a bit behind them. But it's getting closer every day," he said.

Lillard has cut down his turnovers per 36 minutes from 2.8 to 1.7 and has almost doubled his rebounding output from last season. Also, 50 percent of his field goal attempts are coming from behind the 3-point line, up from 39.1 last season according to Basketball-Reference.com.

"The shots are easy. You have so many different games coming at you," Lillard said of his team. "You have Mo (Williams) playing the fast game. We got D-Wright, older guy with head fakes, shoots threes and makes plays. We got LA, we got Joel, Nic, Wes."

Now equipped with the supporting cast and a year of experience, Lillard is making fewer mistakes.

The Blazers are third in the NBA in offensive efficiency averaging 111.2 points per 100 possessions and Lillard has improved his individual Player Efficiency Rating from 16.4 last year to 20.1.

Another reason why Lillard has become more efficient is that so far this season he has done a much better job getting to the free-throw line. He's averaging six free-throw attempts per 36 minutes compared to 3.6 last season while still averaging around the same amount of field goal attempts.

Aldridge has been excellent so far from midrange, shooting 49 percent on such shots according to NBA.com, well above the league average. His turnaround jumper has been as unguardable as it's ever been and he's ninth in the league in scoring at 23.3 points per game.

The game plan is no secret.

"We're going to make sure he gets his pick and pops, get his post touches," Lillard said. "I'm going to play in the flow of the game, get ball screens. Get other guys shots and it will work itself out."

Portland needed to add depth and improve defense to be serious about making the playoffs.

Realistically though, with New Orleans' Anthony Davis evolving into a star and Minnesota's Kevin Love coming back at an All-Star level, their two best players had to take it another level as well.

Especially in a league where your stars usually dictate how high your team's ceiling is.

So far, they've done just that.

"Right now, we are just playing our game."