Kobe praises Lillard on career night: "He Was a Bad Boy, Cooking With Gasoline"
Yes, Damian Lillard is a nice guy. Before he took the court Wednesday night to take on the Los Angeles Lakers, he accepted the NBA Kia Community Assists award for the month of March.
Doesn't get much nicer than that.
He's a selfless individual that goes out of his way to make it clear that LaMarcus Aldridge is the Portland Trail Blazers best player and go-to-guy down the stretch of games.
When you think of a nice guy, Lillard should pop up in your mind. But tonight, Lillard turned bad.
He picked up his first technical of his NBA career late in the second quarter after arguing a foul called against him. I've never seen Lillard so frustrated with a call all season. He walked away in disgust and had a couple choice words before being hit with the tech.
“I wasn't trying to get one,” he said. “I felt we needed to play with some emotion and I got mad and said something and he gave me a tech.”
That was one of the signs of Lillard turning heel.
Lillard doesn't get criticized for much, but if there is an area of his game that gets called out, it's his defense. That irritates the mess out of him and he wanted to show the critics that he is making a concerted effort to get better defensively.
He did that by accepting the challenge to guard Kobe Bryant.
“Why not?” Lillard said confidently. “I wanted the challenge. Why not? We're trying to win a game and I'm out there.”
Lillard began pressuring Bryant and holding his own in the post despite giving up four inches to the taller shooting guard. Battling Bryant was how he picked up his technical. He was locked in on his defensive assignment and wouldn't let up.
“I definitely have something to prove on the defensive end,” Lillard admitted. “Coach asked me if I wanted Kobe so he obviously he felt like I'm capable and I feel like I'm capable. So I wanted the assignment.”
The Lakers eventually took the game 113-106, but the Rose Garden crowd got a treat as they watched two extreme competitors duke it out.
Lillard started the game torching Steve Blake. As did Bryant on rookie Will Barton who was making his first NBA career start. Lakers Head Coach Mike D'Antoni countered first, pulling his point guard midway through the first to sic Bryant on the five-time Rookie of the Month.
Barton picked up his second foul with 2:07 to go in the opening quarter. Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts didn't have many options at the wing position due to Nicolas Batum (shoulder) and Wesley Matthews (ankle) being out.
So he asked Lillard if he wanted the challenge of guarding Bryant and he gladly accepted.
Bryant erupted for 47 points on 14-of-27 shooting. It was the most points scored by an opposing player at the Rose Garden all-time. It didn't matter who was guarding Bryant tonight, he was getting his numbers.
“He was on a mission,” Stotts said. “He played the whole game. Usually he feels out the game but he came out very aggressive to start.”
Lillard exploded for a career-high 38 points on 12-of-25 from the field, eclipsing his previous high of 37 points against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Jan. 11. He also dropped in nine assists.
Following the game, Lillard described what it was like going up against Bryant.
“I think it was a lot of pride involved,” Lillard said. “Him being a Hall-of-Fame shooting guard and me being a rookie that's not going to back down. I scored some points and he took the challenge to guard me, he started picking me up.”
“He's fantastic,” Bryant said. “Really fantastic. It wasn't a a game where he was just hot. A lot of players get hot. I told him he was a bad boy. He was out there cooking with gasoline tonight.”
Even Bryant agrees Lillard is a bad guy, now.
I have witnessed two games this season where Lillard got mad and took it out on the opponent. The game in Golden State and tonight. I think he has found the formula to being a dominant player – turning bad.
“I just want to win games,” Lillard said. “I probably do get a little more pumped when I'm mad but I'll do whatever it takes to get the win. I might have to get mad, I might not.”