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Damian Lillard’s technical brilliance sets up his cold-blooded moments

Dame Lillard has essentially mastered every aspect of the game.

Damian Lillard celebrates for the Trail Blazers.
Damian Lillard has been on a tear recently.

Damian Lillard’s best stretches all look and feel the same. Picture the 37-foot dagger from last year’s playoffs, a shot impossible for most, but one he practices. Fixate on the aggressive poker face he flashed to the camera, an instant meme that will never be forgotten. One stone-faced man floating above the fray, surrounded by the pandemonium he created.

The length of Lillard Time changes, but the character remains the same. The hotter he gets, the more cold-blooded he seems.

The most recent run of Lillard Time is stretching over multiple weeks. His last six games: a 61-point night to save the Blazers against the lowly Warriors; a 47-point effort to nearly rally late over Dallas; a 50 spot to spearhead a wire-to-wire win over Indiana; a 36-point triple double to beat a full-strength Rockets team, a 48-10-8 line in LA during the most emotional regular-season game in years, and a 51-point, 12-assist breeze against Utah that prompted his head coach to admit that he’d run out of superlatives to describe his play. Most importantly, five of those six ended with Blazers victories, propelling them back into the playoff chase despite a star-crossed season that’d ruin almost any other team.

Lillard’s shot-making may seem magical, and to some extent, it is. I feel confident saying he won’t average 49 points a game the rest of the season (right?). But Lillard’s calm, unflappable nature is not just an effect of his red-hot play. It’s also a manifestation of his highly strategic and analytical decision-making that causes these types of runs in the first place.

When Lillard is at his best, he makes defensive coverages look remarkably inconsistent. He beats soft coverage just as easily as tight coverage, and it’s often hard to tell the difference from the naked eye. Teams are starting to double-team him beyond halfcourt, and he’s still able to score.

Lillard’s approach resembles IBM’s Deep Blue against a league of Garry Kasparoves. He’s built an inventory of counters to every strategy, all while disguising his intentions with the same stone face and low-to-ground dribble. It takes him a millisecond to read the body weight of a dropping big man before he’s either pulling up for three or surging past them off the dribble. Either way, they’re toast. It’s just a matter of how he roasts them.

Lillard’s shoot-or-drive decisions against big men that lay back happen so quickly and decisively that it retroactively looks like the defense has badly screwed up. You might ask yourself why the big allowed Lillard to take this shot when he’s playing this well. Yet it constantly happens because Lillard actually made the decision several frames earlier. The instant he saw Rudy Gobert right foot lean backward, he began rising into his textbook jumper. By the time Gobert can even think about being back on balance to jump, Lillard’s already released the ball. That’s how a long three that looks well-defended is actually an open shot for Lillard.

The same point-of-attack decisiveness explains how Lillard gets to the cup so easily even when given a cushion. Everything about this play looks exactly the same as the one above, except Domantas Sabonis is instead leaning forward with his left foot instead of backward. That’s all Lillard needs to see to turn on the jets.

Lillard isn’t just baiting the help defender in these situations, though. He often toys with his own man, tempting them back into the play before leaving them in the dust on the second move. This false sense of security clears the big man away from the play, and then Lillard simply waits until his own man leans one way or another. If he stays behind, Lillard puts them in jail, waits until they come up in their stance, and then explodes to the cup.

If he tries to instead lunge back in front of Lillard, it’s stepback time.

The obvious defensive counter is to send a hard trap at Lillard, but that’s playing with even more fire. Lillard has downloaded so many different forms of defensive pressure over the years that he spots traps in waiting before they catch him. If he senses a double-team is coming, he’ll fake like he’s heading into it before quickly driving back the other way. It rarely matters which way he drives.

Lillard also loves to attack the cup before his own screener is in position, especially when the trapping big man is out of position in some way.

But Lillard doesn’t just attack away from traps. He’s also willing to take himself right into the belly of the beast to create four-on-three situations for his teammates and even himself. The key is that Lillard never gives the ball up until he’s sure his teammates are spaced optimally to use their numbers advantage. Sometimes, that means delivering the pass out right away, especially when the trap is poorly timed.

More often, that means taking hard dribbles backwards to buy his team space and his teammates time to get in position. Defenses are understandably petrified of him turning the corner and going around both trappers, so they’re often reluctant to pursue him if he’s already dribbling away from the hoop. But that additional space only makes it easier for Lillard to make the pressure release pass to a teammate on his terms, when his team is actually ready to pounce.

No matter the defensive coverage, Lillard has the answer. Like a great chess player that has spent countless hours studying every possible board alignment, Lillard has internalized the counter to every counter. None of his moves are his signature one, because they all are. The public sees his long-range shooting and believes that’s the key to his offensive success. In reality, it’s his computational decision-making, combined with a well-rounded game that has no bugs.

Mind and body work in sync, of course, and thus we cannot overstate Lillard’s physical gifts that have been forged through years of tireless work in the gym. He understood earlier than most that perfecting his core, and not bulking up or slimming down, was the key to basketball success in today’s perimeter-heavy age. As he told ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry:

“If you keep your core tight and your body strong, then the ball flies out stronger,” he said. “If your body is weak, you come up not as strong and the ball will waver when you’re that far out.”

Lillard was explaining how he is able to shoot so accurately on “logo threes,” named so because they are deep enough to touch the artwork you see just across the timeline on most NBA courts. But the same core strength that allows Lillard to pull up effortlessly from 30 feet away also powers his most devastating tool: his explosive hesitation dribble.

Lillard isn’t particularly fast, but it doesn’t matter because he changes speeds so quickly. He goes 0-to-60 in the blink of an eye, leaving even the quickest defenders in the dust.

He also needs very little space to give himself an advantage. His shoulders are so burly, it’s almost impossible to angle him off if he gets even one-tenth of a step on his man. It’s common to see a defender looking like they have him pinned on the baseline, only for him to explode through their chest at the last minute to exploit the tightest of windows to finish, either on the same side of the rim or by reversing underneath.

Look how low he gets on this drive around P.J. Tucker, arguably the strongest perimeter defender in the game. What is any defender supposed to do when he can bend his legs at that angle and lower his center of gravity? The best they can do is foul him in James Harden-esque fashion.

That’s why it’s a misnomer to suggest logo threes are Lillard’s offensive building block. They may make up the most famous Lillard highlights, but unlike Stephen Curry — a player to whom Lillard is often compared — they’re set up by the drives, not vice versa. Attacking the cup like a powerful running back is Lillard’s cake. The shooting is the icing.

The same body control that switches Lillard from 0 to 60 also gets him from 60 to 0. His long shots looks so picture-perfect off the dribble because the threat of the drive sets them up. He goes from full speed to straight up-and-down, which requires ridiculous body control that one only gets with a tight core.

In recent years, Lillard’s also added a deadly stepback jumper going either direction from any distance. As with his pull-up jumper, the threat of the drive sets these shots up. Having them in his arsenal allows him to transfer the same rapid processing he uses read the feet of big men in pick-and-roll over to one-on-one situations.

Lillard’s mind and body are molded in perfect harmony. His core strength gives him access to every tool possible to generate buckets for himself and his teammates, while his analytical brain ensures he uses those tools at the ideal moment. Defending him is like riding in a car that has a manual transmission. He jerks defenders from zero to 60 and back to zero as many times as necessary, all depending on the coverage he sees.

No player is perfect, of course. Lillard will hit a cold spell where those long threes he so easily sets up fall less frequently. The teammates he so easily trusts won’t always repay it with smart decisions of their own. He is but one person, after all, and even he gets tired. He’s expended so much energy in recent years lifting Portland to higher-than-expected seeds that he’s occasionally run out of gas deep in the playoffs.

But those failures are due to the random nature of outcomes in a complicated game, not faulty processes. Lillard is so calm and calculating that he’s mastered the game itself. His demeanor is both the cause and effect of Lillard Time. The hotter he gets, the more cold-blooded he really is.