Sunday, March 26 2023
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Last season was an effective sabbatical for Damian Lillard. He was’t healthy, and the Trail Blazers took a gap year to rework their roster with defense in mind. Early returns on the latter seem promising; Portland is second in defensive rating through three games, per Cleaning the Glass, but bear in mind that they’ve played the Kings and the Lakers and stats through three games basically mean nothing, which qualifies as good news for Portland’s 24th-ranked offense. 

What does matter are wins. They count the same in October as they do in March and April when the Blazers hope to be battling for playoff positioning. Portland is 3-0 with victories over the aforementioned Lakers and Kings as well as the Suns, and Damian Lillard has already reminded us of his value in tight games, which the Blazers figure to be in a lot of this season. 

On Sunday, Lillard scored 41 points for the second straight game in Portland’s two-point win over the Lakers. Over the final five minutes and change, Lillard scored 12 of Portland’s 18 points, including this vintage step-back 3 to put Portland up two with 12 seconds remaining. 

The last five minutes of tight games are when Lillard, over the last few years, has become arguably the most lethal player on earth. In 2020-21, his last season of relevant record, Lillard led the league with 162 clutch points on 51 percent shooting, leading the Blazers to a plus-100 point differential when games were within five points with fewer than five minutes to play. 

So far this season the clutch numbers don’t look very Lillard-like: 25 percent overall shooting and from 3, but again, throw almost all numbers out at this early juncture. There are only two that matter: Three wins, and Portland’s plus-8 net rating in clutch minutes thus far. 

It can’t be all Lillard all the time, however. Anfernee Simons has struggled with his shot to start the season, but with the game on the line against the Suns, Lillard stepped aside and put his trust in Simons to go one on one against one of the best defenders in the world in Mikal Bridges. Simons delivered the game-winner. 

Against the Lakers, it wasn’t Lillard’s step-back that actually won the game; it was Jerami Grant who went right at LeBron James and finished in traffic for the difference. 

For Portland, it figures to be a thin line between being a playoff team and a lottery team. Tilting these 50-50 outcomes is a necessity, and so far, the Blazers are once again ending up on the right side of this proverbial coin flip. 



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