With 7.5 seconds left in the first half, and the Portland Trail blazers leading the Denver Nuggets by sixteen points, Ty Lawson takes the inbounds and streaks down the court. As he blurs to the rim, Lawson leans into Damian Lillard and flips his head back to further sell the contact. The whistle blows, and just like that, Lillard picks up his third foul.
Last season, a third foul may have forced Lillard to become more passive on defense so as to avoid further foul trouble. Yet on Friday, as the third quarter started and the Nuggets immediately attacked him by forcing him to chase Randy Foye around screens, Lillard’s aggressive demeanor remained unchanged.
It was a welcome sight for Portland head coach Terry Stotts, who praised Lillard’s defensive effort after the game.
“[Lillard] didn’t back down and didn’t back off the challenge of guarding a guy even with [foul trouble]. I thought that stretch [in the third quarter] in particular was impressive.”
Despite a decorated rookie season, Lillard still needed to improve his defense.
Lillard attributes part of his defensive struggles as a rookie to what was then a relatively limited vocabulary. It thus became vital for Lillard to expand his NBA vocabulary , to learn the different terminologies of every team so as to no longer be caught unaware.
“Being a rookie, there’s a lot you don’t know coming into the league and it’s easy for some offenses to take advantage of your lack of knowledge.” Lillard said.
For example, last season, when Lillard found himself matched up on defense with a bigger guard on defense, the offense would call out “punch” or “drop” and try to throw the ball down low to the guard and exploit the mis-match.
“Last year, I didn’t know the call,” Lillard said. “Now I do, [and I know] to try to force my man out a little bit on the catch. [That way] I can use my lateral quickness and get up under him to make him shoot a jumper, instead of him bodying me on the block.”
Playing in the Western Conference, Lillard has the unenviable task of guarding the league’s premier point guards, from Tony Parker to Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook to Mike Conley, Steph Curry to Ricky Rubio.
“It’s tough when you’re so involved offensively and [with] my position being the toughest to guard night in and out,” Lillard said. “You’re playing off pick and rolls and guarding them for an entire season, so it’s tough mentally to do it over and over.”
LIllard knows that for him to become a great player, and for the Trail Blazers to become a great team, he needs to be a better defender.
“It comes to fighting over pick and rolls, pursuing plays and not just stopping on pick and rolls and letting guys keep going. It comes down to effort, [to] listening for plays and knowing what’s coming so I can be a step ahead,” Lillard said. “It’s having more of a desire to compete on that end of a floor.”