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You Needed to See it Twice: why Damian Lillard didn’t blow up the Lakers

Los Angeles Breaks the Curse

Portland came into this game with a 34–8 record at home against the Lakers, since 1996, and dominated the Shaq-Kobe Three-Peat Lakers 13–3. More recently, Portland had won 16 straight games, and, as expected, ruined LeBron James’ debut as a Laker with a 129–118 victory. How did the Lakers finally break the streak and end the curse in their 114–110 win on the Saturday after Halloween?

#1: “Contain” Damian Lillard

Outside of Curry, Damian Lillard is the most explosive offensive force in basketball. Durant will quietly get you 40. Once in a while Klay Thompson will put on an unmatched shooting exhibition. And Anthony Davis can completely dominate a game without ever shooting a 3-pointer.

But Lillard is a stick of dynamite that has to explode in every game the Trail Blazers play, if they want to beat a good team. When he doesn’t, the results are disastrous. Tonight, Lillard had only 30 points and 4 assists, but it wasn’t the kind of night that ignites the crowd and his team, as he only shot 2 for 9 on 3-pointers.

There were two methods the Lakers used to limit his damage:

A. Good pick and roll drop defense by Lonzo and McGee

Now I know every troll and blog boy are going to yell that Lonzo had a horrible game (-16), with only 3 points, 3 rebounds, 2 turnovers, shooting only 1 for 4 on his 3-pointers. And yes, he was not good offensively.

But he always struggled against Portland, because he is the main guy trying to defend Lillard.

Saturday night, Lonzo’s only task was to stay on Lillard, no matter what. Lillard is deadly when he is left open on 3-pointers, and it is the thing the fuels the home crowd. Instead of switching on everything, as the Lakers like to do when they play small, Lonzo had to fight through screens, and chase Lillard over the top to try and contest every 3-point shot. JaVale McGee’s responsibility was to drop back in the paint and harass Lillard when he tried to finish at the rim.

I rewatched every minute that Lonzo was on the floor with and here is the summary of the 19 minutes he was physically guarding Lillard:

Lillard: 7 points and 4 assists on 2 for 8 shooting (1 of 4 3-pointers). (Note: When he wasn’t guarded by Lonzo, he hit an open 3-pointer in transition, scored on a floater, and made a technical free throw.)

Here’s how that compares to Lillard’s normal game on a per 36 basis:

Lonzo/McGee defense: 13.2 pts, 7.2 ast, .250 FG%, .250 3P%

Normal Lillard per 36: 23 pts, 6.2 ast, .433 FG%, .368 3P%

The reason why Lonzo got pulled from the game and didn’t come back at the end was because he missed some open shots and didn’t have the technique to use his size advantage in the post against Lillard. The reason why he had a short rotation in the 2nd quarter was because Rondo loves playing against Lillard (as he showed when New Orleans swept Portland in last year’s playoffs), which is the second method to “contain” Lillard:

A. Attack Lillard when he’s on defense

It’s impossible to guard great offensive players, but if you make them use energy to play defense, it can affect their shooting eventually.

Rondo absolutely killed Portland in last night’s game, as he had a +/- rating of +28. Here’s a breakdown of the short periods that Rondo guarded Lillard:

2nd Quarter, from 7:45 to 3:40: Rondo 5 pts, 1 reb, 1 ast, 1 stl; Lillard 3 points, 0 for 2 shooting (1 layup blocked). The Lakers increased their lead by 8 points to 52–43.

3rd Quarter, from 4:35 to 2:44: Rondo 4 pts, 1 stl; Lillard 2 pts, 1 stl. The Lakers increased their lead by 5 points to 78–71.

#2: When the cat’s away, the mice come up big

The key difference in the two games played between these teams has been the bench.

In the first game of the season, Nik Stauskas hit 5 of 8 3-pointers, and the Portland bench outscored the Lakers 55–46, in a game they won by 9.

In last night’s game, with Rondo shoring up the bench, the Lakers’ bench built a 20-point lead and outscored Portland 50–26.

The Lakers really need Rondo to direct the bench because he’s great in the pick and roll, is good finishing at the rim, and can keep loose cannons like Lance Stephenson playing within the flow of the offense (most of the time).

Each time Lillard went to the bench, Rondo dominated Portland.

At 4:14 left in the 1st, Rondo entered the game with the Portland up by 10, and started to cut into their lead.

Just over a minute later, Lillard went to the bench with Portland up by 7, at 24–17. When he came back at 7:45 in the 2nd, the Lakers were up 37–36.

Rondo continued to dominate with the starters and helped build the Lakers lead to 9, at 52–43. Overall, that’s a 35–17 run during Rondo’s 12:34 on the court.

(Unfortunately, Rondo picked up his third foul with 3:40 left in the half, and Portland went on a 14–4 run on the strength of McCollum’s shooting and an Evan Turner (career .300 3P%) 3-pointer.)

At 2:44 in the 3rd quarter, Lillard went to get some rest, with Portland down 78–71. In the 5 minutes he rested, Rondo took the Lakers on a 17–4 run that increased the Lakers’ lead to 20, at 95–75.

#3: Luke made two key rotational adjustments

In the first game, Zach Collins killed the Lakers as they tried to play Kuzma as a small ball 5. Not only was Kuzma unable to play good defense, the banging underneath ruined his offense.

In the second game, Luke put Ivaca Zubac into the game to guard the equally slow Nurkic, which gave McGee more rest. When Collins came in, Luke tried Josh Hart as a way undersized small ball 5 in the second half. Hart held his own as Portland tried to exploit the mismatch. Collins scored a couple of times, but Hart got a couple of stops, making this a very successful way to steal more rest for McGee.

#4: Be ready for the explosion

In the 4th Quarter, Rondo tired and got in foul trouble, picking up two fouls in 15 seconds. He had to sit with his 5th foul at 8:26. Instead of bringing back Lonzo to defend, they left in Hart.

Without Rondo or Lonzo, Lillard started to get comfortable.

In the last 9:44 of the game, Lillard had 11 pts, 1 reb, and 1 stl, shooting 4 for 8 (with two layups blocked!), but missed two 3-pointers, while McCollum caught fire, scoring 14 points on 6 for 7 shooting, 1 reb, and 1 assist, as Portland went on a 35–19 run to finish the game.

Portland’s stars did miss all 3 of their 3-pointers. Could it be the result of how hard they had to work for shots all night, and the pounding they took when they went under the basket?

#5: Give key players enough rest.

Luke wisely gave McGee enough rest to finish the game strong. McGee played 27 minutes, but only played 6 minutes in the fourth quarter, even getting a 1 1/2 minute rest at the 5-minute mark. This paid off as McGee got another huge block on Lillard, an offensive rebound, and a basket in the last 1:10 of the game.

(Rondo returned at 5:06, but was gassed in his last run, and contributed nothing but 2 turnovers. He played 26 minutes, and maybe that’s five minutes too much.)

LeBron only played 31 minutes! Because of the bench’s superb play, he sat much longer as they built up their lead. Even though Portland’s guards had their usual 4th quarter explosion, the extra rest was the last piece of the puzzle.

#6: Have a superstar closer

Last year, the Lakers lost two games in the last minute because they didn’t have an All-Star to close the game. In Portland, Lillard hit a 3-pointer with 1 second left in the game, and in L.A., the Lakers blew an 11-point lead with 5:26 left in the game as Lillard and McCollum hit five straight 3-pointers.

Enter LeBron James, force of nature.

LeBron came back into the game with 8:26 left and the Lakers up 97–77. Here’s a summary of their possessions the rest of the way:

  1. Ingram misses jumper (up by 18)
  2. Ingram makes driving dunk (up by 18)
  3. LeBron misses layup (up by 16)
  4. Ingram bad pass (up by 14)
  5. LeBron makes 18-foot jumper (up by 16)
  6. McGee misses 20-foot jumper (up by 14)
  7. Kuzma turnover and loose ball foul (up by 11)
  8. LeBron makes two free throws (up by 13)
  9. Ingram turnover (up by 11)
  10. Rondo back court turnover (up by 8)
  11. LeBron misses 17-footer (up by 6)
  12. LeBron makes driving dunk (up by 8)
  13. LeBron makes 1-foot shot (up by 8)
  14. Rondo traveling
  15. LeBron misses 34-foot 3-pointer (up by 5)
  16. Lebron assist to McGee (up by 7)
  17. Hart makes 1 of 2 free throws (up by 6)
  18. LeBron makes two free throws (up by 6)

Yes, the Lakers did not execute well, with 5 turnovers in the last 8 minutes, and a bad shot thrown up by McGee. But the Lakers did not melt down as LeBron finally closing a game the way he has throughout his career.

LeBron had 10 points, 1 assist, and 1 block, shooting 3 for 6. He accounted for 12 of the Lakers last 15 points to preserve a big win in Portland.

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.

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