Lillard: Takes defense criticism personally
BOISE -- The Portland Trail Blazers finally came away with a preseason victory after defeating the Utah Jazz 96-86 at CenturyLink Arena Friday night in Boise, Idaho.
Portland as a whole shot 49 percent, their best offensive output thus far.
Damian Lillard (23 points) and LaMarcus Aldridge (20 points) combined for 43 points on 16-of-24 shooting. To be fair to Aldridge, he only missed one shot the entire night to go along with eight rebounds in 18 minutes.
Mo Williams even erupted off the bench as he forced the issue by pushing the ball up court almost every time he touched it. The former Jazz player ended the game with 11 points and seven assists.
It was only a matter of time before the offense clicked. There's too many weapons on this team for it to be absent for long stretches at a time. The defense was the most impressive element of the game.
Lillard hounded, smothered Jazz rookie Trey Burke. Whether is was fighting through screens, pressuring the ball or playing the angles, Lillard was an effective defensive force resulting in the rookie going three-for-10 with no day light available.
"Dame has made a very conscious effort to become not just a better defender, but a good defender and I think you can tell with his demeanor on the defensive end," Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. "How he's pursuing plays, how he's fighting over screens. I think his knowledge of the league is certainly getting better but I think his approach to the defensive end is to be commended."
Burke, like Lillard, was the first point guard taken in their respective draft classes. Lillard knows how it feels to be a rookie being picked on, and he made sure he kept that "welcome to the league" initiation going.
"It's was a learning experience for me," Burke told CSNNW.com. "Obviously I was excited going up against him. He won Rookie of the Year. He's one of the best guards in the league. We were the first point guards taken. He told me it's preseason, I just got to keep working, and that's what I got to do."
Lillard is a good player. He has all the physical tools to become a great player in this league. The athleticism, the pure shooting stroke, the strength, it's all there. There's no reason he can't become an elite player.
He wasn't criticized often last year, but when he was, folks were complaining about his defensive efficiency. A summer of watching film and getting back to the fundamentals of a proper defensive stance, will have players saying exactly what Burke said after tonight's game.
"He's a really good defender," Burke said of Lillard. "He's a guy that can score on offense, obviously. But on the defensive end, he's going to get after you. That was my first time playing against him but I think he did a good job getting around screens and staying on my hip. I felt like I was still getting down hill but I felt him right there every time. It was tough."
Aldridge, in a way, says he is on the same path as Lillard: on the cusp of turning the corner defensively. His goal is to become a better shot blocker. Well, he got two of them in 18 minutes. If you were in attendance, you truly saw the makings of what could be an All-Star duo in Portland.
"I already said if we're winning and playing defense, he's going to be an All-Star and I'm going to be an All-Star," Aldridge told CSNNW.com. "We're both trying to become better defensively in different ways, him on the ball more and me blocking shots. If we both take on the challenge to be better defensively and still remain dominate offensively, we'll both be All-Stars this year."
It's only one game, but it's a start. It's only a rookie, but it's a start, too. Sometimes all you need to see is that you're capable of tackling the task at hand. Tonight was the building of a foundation. If Lillard cleans up this area of his game, the sky's the limit.
As far as being praised for his defense, he's cool with it, but not complacent.
"It just let's me know that there's some respect there and there's probably going to be a target on me. I respect that and accept it. It's going to be a fun season," Lillard said.