In a week when the Brooklyn Nets completed their organizational overhaul with the dismissals of head coach Lionel Hollins and general manager Billy King, it was only fitting that Damian Lillard stole the show. The point guard, who went to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of Brooklyn’s shortsighted strategy, carried the Trail Blazers to a 116-104 win. In the process, he displayed why he’s one of the league’s best point guards and showed the Nets exactly what they’re missing.
“Damian Lillard–it’s a joke that this guy hasn’t been an All-Star,” interim head coach Tony Brown said following the game. “He plays with so much poise. … They have a good group of young talent over there, and it’s just a tough night for us to try and get those guys under control.”
In order to appease Deron Williams, the Nets sent what amounted to the sixth pick in the 2012 draft (along with several contracts) to the Blazers for Gerald Wallace. Just as Wallace’s body started breaking down, Lillard began emerging as a transcendent guard. His ability to carry a team full of role players on his back is what separates him from so many in this league–especially Williams.
Lillard poured in a game-high 33 points and dished out 10 assists in a game-high 38 minutes. The Nets led by six points with 8:41 left in the fourth quarter, but Blazers head coach Terry Stotts immediately went back to his best player. What ensued was a collection of bullet passes, controlled drives to the rim, and three-pointers from somewhere past Flatbush Ave.
“When Damian Lillard came back in (in the fourth quarter), he pretty much took over the game,” Joe Johnson said. “He’s very poised in the pick-and-roll, so he’s never in a rush/ I mean, he’s shooting three, four feet from behind the three-point line. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything you can do about that.”
The Nets had no answer for the guard, in much the same way that the team has no answers for its future. Despite losing four starters from last season–LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, and Wesley Matthews–Lillard has kept his team afloat. Stotts has accomplished this rare feat by relying on the two players his team drafted: Lillard and guard C.J. McCollum. Against the Nets, Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe gave Portland its biggest lift outside of the stud backcourt, and it’s no coincidence that the Blazers drafted them as well.
“Dame was doing his thing, and when he’s on he’s tough to stop,” said Brook Lopez, who scored a team-high 25 points. “He was getting where he wanted to go, getting his looks and just making plays, and so he was rolling.”
Even though those around the organization insist that the Nets would not have taken Lillard–mainly because of Williams’ presence–Brooklyn still forfeited the right to grab a player like Andre Drummond or Harrison Barnes. And let’s face it: overlooking Lillard is emblematic of the Nets’ inability to run the franchise over the past several seasons, culminating in Sunday’s housecleaning.
“Damian Lillard really carried us in the fourth quarter,” Stotts said. “We’ve seen it before, and we know what he’s capable of doing. … He’s playing some exceptional basketball, and we needed all of it tonight. I’m not one for superlatives, but this is a really good stretch. He makes the shots, but I really like that he’s had double-figures in assists. His decision-making has been really good. We all know he can score, but his floor game, his assists, and his involving his teammates has really been at a high level.”
The Nets lack a player like Lillard, even though they missed that type of player throughout Williams’ entire tenure with the franchise. His poise, junkyard dog attitude, and penchant for hitting the big shot are all qualities that make him one of the league’s best. “I’ve been getting back in the rhythm, and I think our team is playing really well,” Lillard said. “Our offense and our bigs have been setting really good screens. Our spacing is really good. We’re moving well without the ball, we’re sharing the ball, and like I always say, I get my shots and put my time in and keep my game tight. I’m just in one of those grooves where the game is just in flow. I just feel good out there.”
When Lillard sparked a dramatic double-digit comeback against the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday night–courtesy of five three-pointers in the last 3:07 of regulation–he motioned to his wrist, signaling that it was time and the team had arrived. The Nets are wondering the same about their future, although its a lot more murky.