Blazers learning about execution and physicality behind Lillard
There's been times this season when Portland Trail Blazers fans feel their squad can't be beat.
Then, often quickly, the opposite feeling comes along, where it seems like the Blazers can't beat anybody.
That might just be the normal ebb and flow of sports fandom, but Portland has truly looked on and off this season, sometimes within the same game.
It's why they blew a late lead Thursday, Dec. 8, at home to the visiting Denver Nuggets to lose 121-120, but it's also why Portland held on for a 124-118 win the next game Saturday, Dec. 10, over Minnesota.
For Blazers superstar Damian Lillard, it all comes down to finding a happy medium.
"The experienced, really good teams, even when they're not playing great, they have a medium where it's like, they're still playing solid basketball," Lillard said. "I think everybody always thinks about the Spurs. When I first got in the league, it was like, they're not doing anything special, they're not shooting the ball great, but they're cutting hard every time, they screen and they're making you work.
"The execution was still there with everything that they did so it kept the level high enough to where they didn't struggle. And it takes a mature, experienced team to be that way and right now we're still working on becoming that team."
And that's where the up and down nature lies with the 2022-23 Blazers that features nine players either 25 or younger, with Justise Winslow right above that at 26.
To be great, it takes time and energy along with standout talent. Portland has shown these younger players have the latter, but now it's about building.
The defense is where the biggest construction job remains as the Blazers gave up 121 and 118 points before heading into a Monday, Dec. 12, matchup at home, again facing Minnesota.
"I think the biggest thing is defensively, we've been taking some steps back," Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said. "I think it starts first and foremost with our physicality … our physicality is not the same as it was. We've got to be better with that and that kind of just fuels everything."
Late in the third quarter Saturday against Minnesota, Billups saw that physicality in the defense finally resurface with guys stepping into passing lanes, battling a big like Rudy Gobert for rebounds and fighting for every possession.
Portland ended the night with a 22-4 advantage in second chance points and out rebounded the Timberwolves 45-28.
"I think it was our guys in the huddle challenging each other," Billups said of the turnaround in that third quarter. "Pretty upset with each other that (the Timberwolves) were scoring so easily … They can make you look that way, but at the same time, our guys had a lot of pride in the game. And I think it was really them, it wasn't me, it was them challenging each other."
Drew Eubanks was certainly up for the challenge, and he's someone Billups has said previously this season can be the physical force Portland needs at times.
He threw down a dunk on Gobert that is going to be the Troutdale local's poster here soon, and he threw it down with such force that he cracked open his finger and started bleeding all over the court.
Eubanks, of course, didn't notice. The landing sent a little pain into his back that had been bothering him recently, but the emotions of dunking on one of the NBA's best defenders helped that subside.
More importantly, the 25-year-old was just doing as his leader in Lillard had instructed.
"Throughout the season we've been there, done that before when it comes to getting leads and then giving them up," Eubanks said. "We were making our run, I forget when he said it … Dame got everybody in and he said, 'We need this (freaking) win, we need this (stuff).'
"It's simple, but when he says stuff like that, everybody, because it's Dame, pays attention and you want to play hard for him … I look up to him, obviously, being a leader of the team and growing up here, all of that. When he says something, I always try to listen."
Lillard and Billups have said all season it'll take time to build with a young core. And the ups and downs have been evidence of that.
Execution and physicality take a concentrated effort each and every night in the NBA. Execution failed in the game against the Nuggets when Jamal Murray escaped for a step-back 3-pointer with .9 seconds to go. But physicality succeeded in the win over Minnesota.
Putting all those pieces together on a nightly basis in the NBA is no small task, especially for a large group of players either stepping into new roles or seeing their first real NBA minutes.
But having a guy like Lillard leading those youngsters will go a long way for the Blazers to try and find their Spurs-like medium.
"I grew up with people telling me the game is sold, not told, and I'm gonna give it to them for free," Lillard said. "I enjoy seeing that process happen for them."
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