OAKLAND – The DVD of the just-completed game would be dropped off before he left the locker room. Sometimes Damian Lillard would watch later the same night, usually he wouldn’t. Sometimes he would watch on another day, usually he wouldn’t. That went on month after month last season.
In the summer, he had a collection and he had time. Lillard would watch, mostly alone at his home in Portland. And he would cringe.
“In my head, I was kind of embarrassed watching myself,” Lillard told NBA.com.
His defense looked that bad.
“Just to see some of the plays that I could have done a better job on or showed more effort that I gave,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I was doing that.”
He is the reigning Rookie of the Year, a foundation of the promising future of the Trail Blazers… and seeing a big hole in his game. Just as bad, he was hearing about it too. That settled it. Angered, driven and admittedly ashamed, Lillard made improving on defense a priority as he went through offseason workouts.
He wants to see a different player when he watches the post-game DVDs in the future. He wants to not hear the critiques about a point guard with a limitless future offensively and little reason for pride on the other side of the ball.
This is the new Lillard with 2013-14, his second season, days away from opening.
“He took a lot of criticism about his defense,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “Obviously he had a great season as a rookie. Historical in some ways. But people kind of chipped away at his defense, and he took that to heart. You can really tell that he’s put his mind to it, because he wants to be great at both ends.”
The Trail Blazers see Lillard better at navigating screens and better able to anticipate what the opponent will do on offense. Some of that was always there – he hit the league smart and mature after four years in college – and some is the experience from the rookie learning curve.
And there is the embarrassing feeling and the whispering comments he heard from opponents. Of course there is the embarrassment and the burning ears.
“It fuels me, definitely,” Lillard said Thursday night at Oracle Arena, where the Trail Blazers beat the Warriors in their exhibition finale, “because people were giving all this credit for what I can do offensively and then they say, ‘He takes a break on defense and he can’t guard anybody.’ And I know I can guard people. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to. I’m a good athlete, quick, I’m strong. So why wouldn’t I be a good defender? It’s just a matter of me wanting to do it.
“Last year, I wasn’t used to guarding 60 pick-and-rolls in one game and guys being really good at it. In one game it could be that many. Pindowns. Pick-and-rolls. I think it came down to just effort. There’s a lot of plays I watched myself get hit by a screen and I kind of died on the screen and didn’t finish pursuing the guard or finish the possession out and my man ended up either getting an easier shot or finding somebody else because one of our bigs had to help me out. It just came down to the effort part of it. Me wanting to be better at it. And I want to be better at it.”
All the Blazers know they need to be better at it, after finishing 29th in shooting defense last season, to makes the playoffs. They have talked about it, emphasizing the importance of getting better at stopping opponents, and management made its statement tangible by acquiring Robin Lopez to protect the rim at center.
Lillard’s progress is obviously a big deal for Portland, but it’s an especially big deal on defense, where any improvements are noteworthy, all the way to where a playoff berth potentially hangs in the balance. He is a few days away from trying to back up his words. He is a few days away from getting the first post-game DVD to review.