PHILADELPHIA — After yet another ugly individual performance Monday night in a season full of them so far, Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard said his poor start is a chance for him to show the world what he’s really about.
“I always look at struggles as an opportunity to show my true character,” Lillard said after finishing with 20 points and 10 assists, but shooting just 7-for-20 from the field and 2-for-9 from 3-point range in a 113-103 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
“When things go great there’s a lot of praise that goes along with that. A lot of people give you a lot of credit. They speak highly of you on social media, TV. ‘Oh Dame had 60, Dame had 50.’ They speak really highly of you. But I think it says more when you’re going through something and s— is kind of hitting the fan and you’re struggling and everybody’s got something to say and to me the real ones, they can keep on trucking and keep on going and still find a way to get the job done.
“And, me personally, I love when those opportunities present themselves. Because when I am riding high and when I do get smoking hot and when I get going people are going to look at it and be like, ‘We remember when you were struggling and you didn’t shy away from it.’ I think it will be more respect for the success when they see how you handle failure and how you handle struggle.”
Lillard added: “So, personally, I embrace that. It’s not fun. It’s not easy but it’s part of my DNA. That’s how I got to this position. I’m not angry about it. I’m frustrated with it. I do see it as a challenge and it’s one I accept and I know I’ll come out on top like I always do.”
Monday night, however, saw both Lillard individually and Portland as a team fail to come out on top once again.
Lillard, who entered the game against the 76ers averaging career lows in points (18.3), field goal percentage (34.9%) and 3-point shooting (23.2%), once again couldn’t get going outside of a brief seven-point surge in the middle of the fourth quarter. That allowed Philadelphia, which played the game without Ben Simmons Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris and lost Danny Green (left hamstring tightness) in the third quarter, to lead virtually the entire game for a stunning victory.
“I didn’t like our mindset,” coach Chauncey Billups said after his team lost for a second straight night. “I thought we just traded baskets with them. Complained a lot about the no calls and things and I was too. It’s kind of eye-opening, but it just is what it is. We’re pretty much in the same space we were in the night before, let’s come out and be better in the second half and we just didn’t man, we just didn’t.
“We didn’t have it defensively. We were a step behind. And yeah it’s a back-to-back, and they were waiting on us, but it’s still a basketball game.”
The focus afterward, though, was on Lillard and his ongoing offensive struggles. After spending the first nine seasons of his career playing for one coach, Terry Stotts, who ran an offense full of a healthy diet of the high ball screens that turned Lillard into one of the game’s most lethal scorers, Billups has implemented an offensive scheme this year that has more ball movement in an attempt to get others involved.
“Yeah. I mean, you probably can put some of that on it,” Billups said of the changes to the offense impacting both Lillard and longtime running mate CJ McCollum. “They both have done a good job of just trying to do what’s kind of been asked. Defenses are obviously doing the same thing with Dame. They trap him, he’s doing a good job of getting off of it and there’s too many times where we don’t make teams pay for that.”
Lillard, though, wasn’t about to make excuses.
“I have no excuses,” Lillard said, adding he doesn’t have any injury issues, either, after dealing with an abdominal problem with Team USA at the Olympics this summer. “I don’t know what y’all want me to say about it. I prepared well for the season, my mind is clear.
“I don’t have no reason for it. I don’t have nothing to lean on. I’m not shooting the ball well, and for our team to be successful I’ve got to shoot the ball better, and I accept that. I know that I’m going to shoot the ball better and I know what it’s going to look like and I’ve done it many times.”
Lillard, who was named one of the NBA’s 75 greatest players last month and is in his 10th NBA season, got plenty of clean looks at the basket — just as he did in Sunday night’s loss to Charlotte, where he went 5-for-20 from the field and 2-for-14 from deep. At times Monday, he almost looked in disbelief at the ball not going through the basket, including one moment late in the second quarter when, after another miss, he put his hands on his knees and ruefully shook his head as both teams headed to the bench for a timeout.
But while he said there’s moments of frustration, he said the work he’s put in over his career prevents him from getting too down about an off shooting night or two, knowing that things will eventually turn around.
“Honestly, it’s not as hard as it would seem,” he said. “That’s the best way for me to answer it. The easiest way for me to describe it is frustration. You come off and it’s like ‘All right, I’ve got a clean look,’ and it [doesn’t] go in it’s like, ‘Damn, I needed that one to go in.’
“It’s more frustration than anything, just because of what you expect from yourself. … It’s important to be able to stay level and keep your mind right and keep your mind strong. I focus on finding solutions and that’s without doing nothing crazy to search for a solution. Being unsure and not trusting my work. I practice, I show up, I go through my routine, I do everything to take care of my body, I get my shots up, I’m sharp with everything I do.
“Sometimes failure is a part of it, coming up short is a part of it and I don’t know what else to say other than that I accept the failure, you know what I mean? I’m obviously not going to settle with it. I’m going to keep taking the same shots, I’m going to keep being aggressive, but you’ve got to accept that it’s part of it and you’ve got to keep the belief and keep doing the things that’s going to give you a chance to come out of it and be successful and that’s what I’ve done.”
As Philadelphia waits to see what is going to happen with Simmons, who is out indefinitely due to personal reasons, the longstanding desire of 76ers fans is that Simmons could be the cornerstone of a massive trade package to bring Lillard here to pair him with Embiid.
Before the game, the fans — as usual — booed the other four Blazers when they were introduced. When Lillard was introduced, however, they erupted into cheers.
“Honestly, it doesn’t shift my focus either way,” Lillard said. “During starting lineups, they were booing everybody and then they cheered when I came through. I thought that was funny. That comes with professional sports. It’s fun, it’s a public thing, so I’m not uptight about it or acting like I don’t recognize it.
“I know what it is and I know what it’s about. But I’m a Trail Blazer. I appreciate the love. I appreciate the respect that they showed and the desire or whatever but I’m 10 toes in Rip City, and I’ve said that time and time again and tonight I laughed about it during starting lineups but that was that.”
Twice during the game, there were brief “We want Lillard!” chants.
“Yeah, I heard it,” Lillard said, before adding with a smile, “I mean, it’s the City of Brotherly Love, I guess. They showed the brother some love. They showed me some love, but that was it.”
Billups admitted he heard them, too.
“I mean, I wasn’t surprised at all,” Billups said. “When they were saying, ‘We want Lillard,’ I was saying, ‘We do, too.’
“I mean, I understand and I get it. Philly’s got a great fan base, they pull no punches. I’ve always appreciated that about this city.”