Lillard isn’t as great a shooter as Curry, but he’s the one you want taking the winning shot
Damian Lillard is not better than Stephen Curry. I’m saying that upfront because after what Lillard did to Curry’s Warriors on Wednesday night, there are bound to be some flaming-hot takes flying around. To be honest, I’ve got one burning inside me. I’ve had to be talked out of writing the „Lillard is at least Curry’s equal“ column five times already this season. I’ve been, you could say, sufficiently talked down. I recognize Curry’s superiority. I’m not going to go there.
Where I will go – and frankly, where every halfway logical basketball mind on this planet should join me in going – is to state as a matter of incontrovertible fact that Lillard is in a league even Curry can’t compete with when it comes to clutch shooting. He did it again on Wednesday, ripping this step-back 3-pointer to put the Portland Trail Blazers up two with 13.7 seconds to play.
On the ensuing possession, it was Lillard stepping in front of Draymond Green for the game-sealing charge: Blazers 108, Warriors 106.
You can argue about whether that was a charge or a block, which is to say whether Lillard was fully set or slightly moving before taking that contact, but let’s pay attention to what went down before Green’s penetration. Obviously Golden State designs to get to the ball to Curry, who was spectacular all night with 35 points, but watch the play again, and notice how Curry isn’t looking to step back into space for a shot like the one Lillard just hit. He’s going head down toward the rim and straight into a switch, and upon being stoned by Rodney Hood, he gives the ball up to Green, who then goes to the rim.
There are reasons for all this on Curry’s part. If he pulls the ball back for an isolation 3-pointer rather than trying to turn the corner, there’s a good chance a second defender follows him and he has to give it up anyway. He’s trying to attack before a double team can come. There’s also a basketball adage, albeit of questionable validity, that one should always attack the rim in game-tying/winning situations rather than „settle“ for a jumper.
Call it want you want, but there is nothing about these game-winning shots that Lillard regularly takes, and makes, that even remotely resembles settling. He knows where he can get his space. Lillard shoots seven „open“ shots per game (defender 4-6 feet away), fourth most in the league, not because he forces his way into congestion but because he so easily steps back out of it. This becomes an even more pronounced move in game-winning situations. Down one, two, three, tied, it doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters to Lillard is a clean look, and he finds these by backing up. Remember when Paul George called that 37-footer a bad shot?
Flip the script with the approach Curry took on the ensuing possession, and there is absolutely no way Lillard is forcing his way into congestion, and certainly no chance he’s giving the ball up to Draymond Green, with an opportunity to win the game. One way or another, Lillard is taking that shot. And it’s a pretty damn good bet he’s going to make it.
Lillard’s clutch numbers this season look comical. When a game is within five points with five minutes or fewer to play, he’s shooting 61.4 percent (27 for 44) from the field, 57.1 percent (12 for 21) from three and 100 percent (26 for 36) from the free throw line. His 92 total clutch points trail on Zach LaVine for tops in the league. The Blazers, basically a net-neutral team in terms of overall point differential, go to plus-31 in Lillard’s clutch minutes and carry a record of 13-5 in those tight games.
Per ESPN Stats and Info, Lillard entered Wednesday’s game vs. the Warriors having hit 28 career game-tying/game-winning shots inside the final 20 seconds, the most in the league since he entered in 2012-13.
You can make that 29.
What made Lillard’s heroics on Wednesday even more impressive is he wasn’t having a great game. By his standards, he was having a pretty bad one. He was 1 for 8 from three over the first 45 minutes and 54 seconds. He was 2 for 2 in winning time in scoring the Blazers’ final eight points.
There are those who will argue that the best clutch players don’t so much get better in the biggest moments, but rather, they just don’t get worse. I heard people say that about Derek Jeter for years as it pertained to his postseason heroics. He didn’t become better; he just didn’t fall off where others did. I never bought that. When Jeter came to the plate in October in a big moment, you expected a hit. That feeling doesn’t just create itself. It’s rooted in repetition. You’ve seen the guy do it over and over.
Dame is the same. You expect him to hit these shots, to go to this level in the biggest moments, because you’ve seen him do it so many times. He makes it look routine. Inevitable. There is no doubt that as the stakes raise, so too does Lillard’s game, and somehow, his confidence, which is already through the roof. He knows he’s going to make that shot. Curry is a better shooter. A better player. But with a gun to your head, Lillard is one you want taking the shot to save your life. At this point, I’m not sure how anyone without a death wish could choose otherwise.