Damian Lillard doesn't have many holes in his offensive game. The second-year guard from Weber State is deadly from long range, can shoot the 17-foot fadeaway jumper from the right elbow and is an expert in the clutch. To add to the havoc on offense, Lillard appears to have significantly altered how he attacks the rim since the All-Star break. How has he done it? Let's take a look.
Portland is lacking in experienced drivers, and Lillard has been part of the problem. Blazers fans heard all summer about how the reigning Rookie of the Year had added a midrange floater to his game, but they have seen little of it thus far. Instead, many of his drives have resulted in low-quality shots on long-range, flailing layups:
On the play above, Lillard has no post defenders in front of him, but decides to take off from behind the jump ball circle at the free throw line. He often starts his jump six-to-eight feet away from the basket as opposed to just four or five.
Now, Lillard has made an effort to get closer to the bucket. On this play from Monday, he comes off a pick from the left arc and comes across the middle of the lane. Pau Gasol is reeling and trying to get to the center of the court to contest Lillard's shot.
Lillard seems to have concentrated on protecting his dribble since the All-Star break. You'll see Chris Paul and Tony Parker do this often, and Lillard has taken a page from their book. His mid-dribble hesitation keeps help defenders second-guessing about his trajectory and puts the ball as far away from the defender as possible.
On this drive, Lillard takes off from just a half-step outside the restricted area, despite the fact there is a post defender and a help defender coming at him from both baselines. The result is he beats the help defender and can use the rim to protect his layup for a score. This is closely related to our next point.
Better angles in the paint
Lillard has a tendency to run down the entirety of the lane line on his drives. Without any kind of lateral movement below the charity stripe, it allows opposing big men to practice the concept of "veriticality," i.e. jumping straight up in an effort to contest the shot without drawing a foul:
Lillard runs straight down the lane line as San Antonio contests the shot.
Now, it appears the Blazer guard is using a series of hesitation moves and Euro-steps to move the hips of post defenders and allow himself a closer look at the rim without risking a blocked shot attempt.
Here, Lillard comes off the pick and looks down the right side of the floor. He thinks he can beat the post defender, who is sucked up on the pick, but isn't guarding the lane line.
There's an open opportunity to the basket, with Timofey Mozgov slow to recover on the pick. You can see that the angle to the basket is fairly direct (highlighted) and Kenneth Faried is waiting to try and block the oncoming layup.
With Faried sucking to the play, Lillard does something we haven't seen him do before the All-Star Game: he makes a dribble move within six feet of the basket. With Faried gathering for his jump, Lillard steps in toward the center of the paint.
It allows him to blow by Faried at the rim and finish relatively uncontested.
Lillard really isn't doing anything that we wouldn't expect him to do. Rather, he's simply learning what errors there are in his game and correcting them. A dynamic decision-maker, the Portland star is also making the best of what the defense gives him more often. He is using the baseline drive as a means to get to the rack as teams try to trap him from re-entering the top of the floor, and he's slowed his dribble by a quarter of a step in an effort to remain in control of the basketball.
The result has been staggering. In the last 30 days, Damian Lillard is shooting 20.4 percent better on the right side of the basket and 8.2 percent on the left over his season averages, according to Vorped.com. Even further, Lillard is shooting 62.5 percent in the painted area in that span, up from 49.7 percent.
Lillard no longer tries to barrel into opposing post players, hoping to swing the ball outside and get a late whistle. Instead, increased movement off the dribble has led to deeper penetration and he has been more crafty with how he finishes at the rack.
The only question now is: How will the rest of the Western Conference try to handle a Damian Lillard who can finish at the rim?