How the Nuggets are surviving Damian Lillard

PORTLAND, Ore. — When he stepped out of the locker room, Damian Lillard adjusted his crimson vest and navigated the thin corridor in the belly of the Moda Center en route to the podium for his postgame press conference.

The hallway, no more than 10 feet wide, is packed with people postgame — friends, families, teammates, team employees, agents, reporters — and it’s compounded by the fact the Denver Nuggets locker room is right next to the podium room. There always seems to be a crowd around Lillard anywhere he goes, and even after the game is over, never is a Nugget too far away.

It an ongoing theme of the series. Damian Lillard just can’t seem to get any space.

“I think it’s obvious – they’re trying to show bodies and make me play in a crowd,” Lillard said. “Find the open man, that’s what I’m trying to do. Trying to see where the help is coming from, see where the other guy is coming from, and make that play. And still just find a way to be aggressive and look for shots. Don’t let them turn me into a passive player. I can definitely see them trying to be a little more aggressive and have more bodies around me.”

Like anyone else that has an Internet connection or TV, the Nuggets saw the way Lillard tormented the Thunder in their opening round series. They saw the logo shots, they saw the dramatic shifts of momentum with each ruthless stepback. They saw the way a single Lillard 3 could feel like a 10-0 run, energizing the crowd and deflating defenders.

In the series against the Thunder, Lillard opened it with a missile from some 32 feet, and ended it with one from 37 away. He went 5-of-5 on 3s against the Thunder from 30 or more feet from the hoop. Against the Nuggets, he’s 2-of-5 from 30-plus.

“I think they’re picking him up pretty high, they need to be open,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “For Dame, an open 3 is a good 3. They are picking him up across half court, they are not giving him a lot of space, so I don’t think those same 3s are there.”

Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr. has been at the heart of Denver’s defensive turnaround this season and his focus entering the series with the Blazers wasn’t too complicated. He saw the things that gave the Thunder problems — their pickup points were too low, their bigs weren’t up enough, they weren’t into the ball enough which let him reject screens.

“He had a lot of open space in that series we felt, and that’s not a knock on OKC, we just wanted to be a little bit better,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “We didn’t want him getting 33 a night.”

Lillard scored 28 in Game 4, a 116-112 loss that evens the series at 2-2, but he shot just 9-of-22 from the field and 2-of-7 from 3. The frustration was obvious for him, too. He’s trying not to press, but the Nuggets are trying to force the ball out of his hands. He’s trusting the pass, but the Nuggets want him to pass. He’s a scorer; it’s what makes him elite. But he’s also committed to making the right play and leaning on his teammates. It’s what worked in Games 2 and 3 with CJ McCollum, Rodney Hood, Enes Kanter and Moe Harkless all having big games. He’s trying to pick his spots, waiting for the defense to soften.

Lillard’s first quarter was brilliant, with picture perfect pocket passes and pinpoint dimes to shooters in the corner as he orchestrated around Denver’s attention on him. Lillard lives for the crucial moments though, the dagger shots and game-changing plays. The Nuggets are committed to forcing someone else to make them. There hasn’t been much of an opportunity for rhythm for Lillard. He started 4-of-14 from the floor and showed signs of frustration as he fought against forcing the issue.

“I think when you see a defense come at you that aggressively you have to identify what you think they are trying to do and what you think they are trying to do,” Lillard said. “Try to make them pay for it. Try to attack them with the pass, maybe the weak side or wherever the help is coming from, attack them there and try to take advantage of it. That way it breaks down and maybe they go away from it or it softens up because they are paranoid about the other side scoring. Then get more aggressive after that to score the ball. If that’s not working, then you have to figure it out. Maybe attack, get downhill more and try to draw some contact. Try to make them pay with the pass and see if it will work out by giving the ball up. If not, you have to stay aggressive.”

That mindset seemed to pay off in the fourth quarter where Lillard scored 15 on 5-of-8 shooting. The opportunities started to show, and he took them. Though very un-Dame Time-like, he missed three free throws, including a critical one with 20.3 seconds left that would’ve cut Denver’s lead to one.

Outside of Game 1 where he scored 39, Lillard hasn’t had that same kind of dominant, unstoppable look he had against OKC. Nuggets guard Jamal Murray was asked about what the Nuggets are doing to prevent that, and the whole time Murray answered, Jokic was scanning the stat sheet in front of him, frowning at it like something didn’t add up.

“Brother, he scored 30 points,” he said shaking his head at the questioner.

It was actually 28, and it’s certainly not the 33 he averaged against OKC that Malone referenced. It goes deeper than this series too, with the Nuggets holding Lillard to 24.3 points, 40.3 percent from the field and just 27.1 percent from 3 in eight games, regular and postseason combined. Against the rest of the NBA, Lillard averaged 26.5 points on 44.9 percent shooting from the field and 38.2 percent from 3.

“We haven’t done anything yet,” Malone said with a cautionary tone. “It’s a tied series and we’ve taken homecourt advantage back, but Dame is capable of putting up 40 and 50 in a heartbeat. So by no means do we think that we’ve figured him out.”

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