Portland’s Damian Lillard is one of a few top NBA guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander watches closely, picking apart the All-Star’s repertoire in hopes of expanding his own, and Sunday marked the Clippers rookie’s second opportunity to gauge how well he has studied.
Gilgeous-Alexander tracks how Lillard loses defenders by changing speed, in particular, and was tested throughout the Clippers’ 104-100 road victory. After having trouble chasing Lillard over the top of screens early, Gilgeous-Alexander was moved to cover C.J. McCollum and Avery Bradley began guarding Lillard.
Gilgeous-Alexander bounced between covering Lillard and McCollum the rest of the game, which meant constantly chasing them around on- and off-ball screens that Portland used to create space between its guards and the long-armed rookie.
“It showed me how much I’m not in shape and thought I was,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “It’s kind of hard to guard [Lillard] because you never know when he’s going to go or slow down or set you up for this or set you up for that.”
Lillard scored 10 points during 11 possessions when guarded by Gilgeous-Alexander.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers “challenged [Gilgeous-Alexander] in the second half to man up, basically,” reserve center Montrezl Harrell said. “That’s exactly what he told him. He basically told him if a guy is coming in here and just throwing you all over the place and pushing you around and stuff like that, if [Rivers] was a player he’d take that physically. He challenged him.”
Thirty-four of Portland’s 58 points in the first half were scored in the paint as the Clippers’ defense as a whole struggled to defend pick-and-rolls and the drives they created. The Trail Blazers led by 13 at halftime. They were outscored 38-16 in the third quarter as the Clippers adjusted by sending more help from the defense’s weak-side, Danilo Gallinari said.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s contributions were critical during the turnaround with 10 points, three rebounds, two assists and zero turnovers while playing all 12 minutes in the quarter.
“Our guards were more aggressive on C.J. and Dame and they did a great job,” Gallinari said.
Bradley made only two of his 11 field goals yet the Clippers outscored the Blazers by 21 points when he was on the floor because his defense held Lillard to eight points on 43 possessions – making two of his 10 shots. Rivers wanted a more physical defense after halftime and called the play of Bradley, Gilgeous-Alexander and Patrick Beverley “phenomenal.”
Lillard praised Gilgeous-Alexander’s tenacity after the teams’ first matchup Nov. 8 and the rookie “responded well” to Rivers’ challenge Sunday, Harrell said. Gilgeous-Alexander finished with two deflections and contested 11 shots.
“He started playing a lot harder and made their shots a lot more difficult,” Harrell said.
Lillard made four of his 14 field-goal attempts in the second half and got to the free-throw line only four times. McCollum also struggled after halftime and overall scored nine points on 35 possessions when guarded by Gilgeous-Alexander.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s offensive and defensive ratings this season are nearly identical to those produced by Lillard during his first NBA season, in 2012-13, when he was voted the league’s top rookie. Lillard produced more points and assists per 36 minutes, but Gilgeous-Alexander’s shooting percentage so far is higher.
Producing numbers similar to those of a player he admires is “obviously a good feeling,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. After these teams played the first time, the rookie posted a photo of himself and Lillard to Instagram with the caption, “Test the best to be the best.”
“I watch guys like that all the time and try to put things into my game that they have,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I expect that from myself.”
Harris earns honor
One day after tying a career high by scoring 34 points against Portland, Clippers forward Tobias Harris was named the Western Conference’s player of the week.
Harris averaged 24.8 points and 8.8 rebounds while shooting 45.5% from three-point range as the Clippers (13-6) went 3-1. With Sunday’s win, they moved into first place in the West standings.
An off-night for the bench
Clippers reserves had averaged a league-high 55.9 points this season but were outscored for the first time Sunday 44-31.
A key factor was a rare off night for Lou Williams, the NBA’s top-scoring reserve, who scored four points in 17 minutes. That broke his 62-game streak of scoring in double-figures off the bench, the NBA’s longest since 1983-84.
“Lou’s human, and tonight wasn’t his night but tonight was somebody else’s,” Rivers said. “That’s what makes this team so interesting, because there are so many guys who can score and I thought that was good that we actually went away from Lou a little bit and started playing with Tobias and [Gallinari] and the other guys.”