Damian Lillard effectively took a break from playing last season. He wasn’t healthy, so the Trail Blazers used the time to restructure their roster with a focus on defense. Early results on the latter appear positive; according to Cleaning the Glass, Portland is second in defensive rating after three games, but keep in mind that they have faced the Kings and the Lakers, so stats after three games are essentially meaningless. Nonetheless, this is still encouraging for Portland’s 24th-ranked offense.
Wins are what really count. They are equally valuable in October as they are in March and April, when the Blazers anticipate competing for a playoff spot. Damian Lillard has already shown us his value in close games, which the Blazers look to be in a lot of this season, and Portland is 3-0 with victory over the aforementioned Lakers, Kings, and Suns in addition to those over them.
Lillard scored 41 points for the second game in a row on Sunday as Portland defeated the Lakers by two points. Lillard scored 12 of Portland’s 18 points in the final five minutes and change, including this classic step-back three-pointer that gave Portland a two-point lead with 12 seconds left.
Lillard has developed into arguably the deadliest player on the planet in the final five minutes of close games over the past few years. Lillard led the league with 162 clutch points on 51 percent shooting in 2020–21, his final season with a record that is still relevant, helping the Blazers to a plus–100-point differential when games were within five points with under five minutes remaining.
The crucial statistics thus far this season don’t appear particularly Lillard-like: 25 percent overall shooting and from three, but again, disregard nearly all statistics at this early stage. There are just two that are important: Portland has three victories and a plus-8 net rating in crucial minutes so far.
But Lillard can’t be used exclusively all the time. Anfernee Simons has had trouble making shots to start the season, but with the Suns game on the line, Lillard moved aside and trusted Simons to face off against Mikal Bridges, one of the finest defenders in the world, on his own. The winning shot was delivered by Simons.
When the Lakers were involved, Jerami Grant’s finish in the midst of traffic—rather than Lillard’s step-back—was what made the difference.
Portland’s chances of making the playoffs or being a lottery team appear to be slim. It is necessary to tilt these 50-50 results, and so far, the Blazers are consistently coming out on top in this coin flip.