PORTLAND — Damian Lillard has a tendency to recoil at the Steph Curry comparisons. He’s his own man. If he plays like anyone, he plays like Damian Lillard. That’s his prickly refrain whenever those analogies inevitably crop up, like they have several times before this season, most notably after Lillard scored a career-high 51 points in the Blazers’ stunning 32-point blowout win over the defending champs back in February.
At the time, it was Curry’s own coach, Steve Kerr, who saw in Lillard that same ruthless swagger combined with a lethal and otherworldly shooting ability. So you’ll have to forgive him if he couldn’t help but gush a bit once again Saturday night after his team found itself on the wrong end of yet another one of Lillard’s incendiary performances.
“He’s tough,” Kerr said. “He’s a lot like Steph in that he’s got unlimited range and he can shoot off the dribble, come off high screens, step-backs and that kind of stuff. We know he’s going to be a handful. He always is, and he played a great game.”
And Kerr wasn’t the only one who noticed shades of the still-sidelined two-time MVP in Lillard’s 40-point explosion in Game 3 (a career playoff high), which was punctuated by 8-of-13 shooting from long-range. Klay Thompson, who had 35 points of his own in the loss, immediately thought of his fellow Splash sibling when asked about Lillard’s play.
“You gotta treat Lillard like Steph as far as being 30-35 feet away from the basket, make him put it on the floor, give it up,” Thompson said. “We let him get too many rhythm threes off the catch tonight. That’s where he’s deadly.”
It’s perfectly understandable why Lillard would bristle at the notion that he’s little more than a cheap facsimile of the league’s best player. He finds motivation wherever he can, whether that takes the form of a USA Basketball invite that got lost in the mail, an All-Star snub, or the fact that no one has given his team a chance in these playoffs.
But the truth is, without Lillard playing at a Curry-like level from start to finish, his team doesn’t stand a chance at all. Just look at what happened in the Blazers’ Game 2 meltdown. At a glance, Lillard’s stat line was impressive: 25 points, six assists, four rebounds, a pair of steals, and 6-of-11 shooting from behind the arc. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. An 11-point fourth-quarter lead quickly turned into an 11-point loss after the Warriors outscored the Blazers 34-12 in the final frame. Coincidentally, Lillard attempted just three shots in the fourth and missed all of them.
That’s not to say he deserves all the blame, but as Lillard goes, so go the Blazers. Ergo, on Saturday, with his team in an eerily-similar position, up 13 going into the fourth, Lillard made damn sure it wouldn’t be a repeat of what happened Tuesday night in Game 2. He scored 10 of his game-high 40 in the final period, the highlights of which were two extremely difficult shots from way downtown on back-to-back possessions with just under two minutes remaining to put the game out of reach and broke his opponents’ spirits. Decide for yourself who this reminds you of.
But while the Moda Center was basking in the light of Lillard’s atomic glow, the Blazers have such a small margin for error against even a Curry-less Warriors team that it also took a Herculean effort from members of the supporting cast to help seal it.
Al-Farouq Aminu was almost perfect in Game 3 as he missed just a single shot (8-of-9 overall, 4-of-5 from distance) en route to 23 points and 10 assists, proving once again that he might be the biggest x-factor for the Blazers if he could only find some consistency. He also absolutely dropped the hammer on Andrew Bogut with this one.
C.J. McCollum chipped in 22 points, while Ed Davis added eight points, 10 rebounds, and a pair of blocks off the bench as he filled in beautifully for Mason Plumlee, who was limited to just 17 minutes due to foul trouble. In an odd bit of serendipity, Bogut picked up his fifth foul early in the third as well, which changed the whole outlook of the game for both teams.
Instead of turning to Festus Ezeli, who was huge in Game 2, Kerr simply slid Draymond Green over to center as they’ve done so many times this season to great results. The Blazers opted not to guard him out on the perimeter, so he proceeded to score 19 points in the third quarter alone and finished with a team-high 37 overall, including eight three-pointers of his own.
But aside from Green and Thompson, the Warriors got little-to-no help from anyone else.
Harrison Barnes was particularly atrocious as he notched just seven points on 2-of-8 shooting from the field, including 1-of-3 from downtown in 33 minutes of action, while Bogut, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, and Ian Clark all scored in single digits. The Blazers caught a serious break on that front, and it’s very difficult to imagine the Warriors’ bench — arguably the best in the league — being this inconsequential again the series.
The Blazers now have all the momentum heading into Game 4 at home on Monday with an opportunity to tie the series 2-2. It’s not exactly the same position they were in in the opening round against the Clippers as this Warriors team is still significantly more dangerous even without their best player, but the Blazers have to take what they can get at this point. If they want to make this series truly interesting, it’s going to take more MVP-level play from Lillard and more Warriors-like production from their role players.