The Portland Trail Blazers are in second place in the Western Conference at 30-9, thanks in large part to point guard Damian Lillard.
Lillard entered the season as an All-Star player, but the third-year guard is having the best year of his career, averaging career highs in points (22), field goal percentage (45%), and rebounds (4.7) to go with six assists per game.
Despite having a breakout year last season — which was highlighted by a series-winning three-pointer over the Rockets in the playoffs — Lillard was still cut from the Team USA roster for the FIBA World Cup last summer.
Speaking with SI’s Chris Mannix, Lillard said being cut fuelled him this summer, which led to some intense training:
“It still bothers me. I still think about it. There was no reason for me not to be on the team. I still don’t know why I wasn’t. But it’s just more wood on my fire. It motivates me today.”
He even trained at altitude, something high-level endurance athletes do to increase their red blood cell count before a major competition:
“I use the cold tub, get massages, get my lifts in, try to keep my body strong for that daily pounding. I spent time at Utah training at altitude before camp. I changed my diet last summer. It really prepared me for camp. I was in Utah, training, just testing my wind. Training should be tougher than playing, and it was. I came back and I was in great shape.”
Lillard’s endurance training in particular seems to have helped this season. Even with his past clutch heroics, Lillard has taken his fourth quarter dominance to a new level this season.
According to NBA.com/Stats, Lillard is fourth in the NBA in fourth quarter scoring, averaging seven points per game, and he leads the NBA in total points scored in the fourth quarter with 244 points. In “clutch” situations (defined as a five-point game with less than five minutes to play), Lillard’s been just as good, scoring a total of 59 points on 42% shooting.
In late December, Lillard produced a 40-point, 11-assist effort in an overtime victory over the Thunder. He practically replicated his game-winning shot against the Rockets in last year’s playoff with the game-tying three-pointer versus OKC:
The incredible part of Lillard’s fourth-quarter dominance is his ability to save his most athletic plays for the end of the game. In a tight game versus the Lakers in January, Lillard soared to the basket for one of the best dunks of the entire season:
It has gotten to the point where Lillard’s teammates aren’t even surprised anymore. LaMarcus Aldridge said of Lillard’s huge dunk:
“I think he has a knack for those moments, I think he wants to be great in those moments. I’ve seem him do it over and over again so I’m never surprised by it.”
Blazers center Chris Kaman added, “He saved our butts again… He’s probably saved four of five games for us this year just by one-man showing it all by himself. Obviously it takes a team. But big plays have come off his back.”
The Blazers have a legitimate shot at championship contention this season, even in the deep Western Conference, and having a go-to player like Lillard certainly makes things easier.
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