Stretching the Field: Lillard's pro career off with a bang

2:10 PM, Nov 2, 2012   |    comments
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(Sports Network) - Counted out before the new NBA season even began, the Portland Trail Blazers apparently never received that memo.

Did the Blazers deserve to be labeled irrelevant? Absolutely. All they have is LaMarcus Aldridge, right?

Hold your horses, partner.

The Blazers missed the playoffs for the first time in four years with a 28-38 record in the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season, and were "blessed" with two picks in the first 11 of this past summer's NBA Draft. If anyone's been monitoring Portland's situation, especially the backcourt, selecting a point guard was priority No. 1.

Enter Damian Lillard.

Lillard was a standout for Weber State, a lesser-known school in northern Utah, and knew coming into his current situation he would have some big shoes to fill. Brandon Roy was the face of the Blazers' franchise and reluctantly let go following too many knee issues. Roy could score at will at full strength and since received a second chance with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Now backcourt duties rest upon the young shoulders of Lillard, a floor general with speed and ball-handling skills worthy of future All-Star status. What more can first-year head coach Terry Stotts ask for? Not much after what Lillard and the Blazers did in a 116-106 season-opening triumph at the expense of the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, a team loaded with future Hall of Famers in Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.

"A huge win for us," Wesley Matthews, who scored 22 points, told the Portland Tribune. "We have a lot of doubters against us, a lot of people writing us off.

"This isn't going to silence them, but it should certify our belief in ourselves."

Lillard convinced some cynics, too, as he filled the stat sheet with 23 points, 11 assists, three rebounds and one steal. He did have six turnovers, but give the kid some credit. He just helped dispatch the Lakers, the favorites to represent the Western Conference in the finals and possibly win another NBA title.

Portland has something going here early on. A Lillard-to-Aldridge connection could become an ordinary phrase in the Pacific Northwest. There's also Matthews and Nicolas Batum for Portland, which might have reached the playoffs a season ago had Lillard been drafted before the lockout was official. On the flip side, Lillard may not have been there for the picking in June had the Blazers finished better than 10 games under .500.

It's just one game for the Blazers, whose five starters scored in double figures and helped shoot 50.6 percent on the evening. Lillard was the key. He got everyone involved and even Aldridge said the rookie "played great." Lillard joined Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas as the only players in NBA history with at least 20 points and 10 assists in their NBA debut. The 11 assists were the most by a player in his debut since Jason Kidd had 11 back in 1994, when Lillard was still learning how to talk.

The 22-year-old Lillard became the first player with at least 23 points and nine assists in his initial pro appearance since LeBron James in 2003, and is only the third player in franchise history to net 23 points or more in his coming out party (Maurice Lucas, Mychal Thompson). Lillard said it's easier for him to distribute the ball when Aldridge, Matthews and Batum are making their shots. He also wanted to make Nash work on both ends of the floor and the two-time NBA MVP was forced to leave the game with a leg ailment. Perhaps the spry Lillard was too much for Nash, whose career is soon coming to an end.

According to Aldridge, the team's lone All-Star, Lillard ran the offense like a seasoned veteran and made shots "when he had to." Batum was impressed with his new teammate as well, saying "the balance of his game is really good."

Lillard is reminding Portland fans of a former point guard with his polished skills, and could be the best floor general since Terry Porter kept the likes of Clyde Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams and Kevin Duckworth in check.

Yes, it was only the first game and there are 81 to go, yet it wouldn't be a surprise now if Portland sneaks into the playoffs with a seventh or eighth seed. That's miles away, of course, and things could happen down the road. Fatigue, injuries, egos are just a few aspects that could be a distraction.

In a season loaded with questions regarding chemistry, the development of youth and avoiding another lottery pick, the Blazers are off to a promising start. As if facing the Lakers on opening night was a burden, Portland has three straight road tests against Oklahoma City, Houston and Dallas on the horizon. Lillard won't catch a break either against upcoming guards Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City and both James Harden and Jeremy Lin of Houston.

Lillard was asked if the intensity level will be different at the Thunder.

"I know it will, especially going to their gym," Lillard said. "It looked like a crazy atmosphere. I watched their team a lot. They have a really competitive team and two of the best players in the league."

That trek could deflate the high hopes Portland has right now. The upcoming path won't get any smoother after the grueling road swing, with the Clippers, Spurs and Hawks slated to invade Rip City from Nov. 8-12.

Lillard said after his dazzling debut that the Blazers haven't set specific goals this season other than to "get better everyday" and "compete."

To reference the Beatles, the NBA season is a long and winding road, and Lillard will experience his ups and downs. For now, at least, he has the Rose City optimistic the roller coaster season will come to a halt in the playoffs.

The Sports Network

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