By Torey Jones
Contributor, 750 The Game
Damian Lillard Returns to Portland
On Wednesday, Damian Lillard makes his long-awaited return to Portland, suiting up in the opponent’s locker room at Moda Center for the first time ever. This will be the most monumental return game in franchise history, and all eyes will be on how great the tribute video will be and how loud the ovation will be for Lillard in pre-game introductions. Mark Mason, the public address announcer for the Portland Trail Blazers, posted a poll on X (formerly known as “Twitter”) where he asked his followers if he should introduce Lillard with “special treatment” or “like any other visitor”: 93.1% of respondents voted for Mason to introduce Lillard with special treatment, and I look forward to hearing “the letter O” ring through the Moda Center again.
While the Bucks come in with a 32-15 record (second place in the Eastern Conference), Lillard’s time in Milwaukee has been challenging, and he’s struggled recently, scoring 23.5 points per game while shooting 38.9% from the field and 28.3% from three in the month of January. Lillard is on the best team he’s ever been on, but that’s come with an adjustment period as he learns how to get going in the flow of the offense alongside a number one option in Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But Lillard’s transition to Milwaukee was about something other than individual success in the regular season, as his more recent years in Portland became defined by, and I expect him to figure things out in time for the playoffs. For the first time in his career, Lillard has a legitimate chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy; it just won’t be on a parade route down Broadway like he envisioned. Regardless, Blazers fans are still rooting for Lillard to get his championship ring, rooting from a distance as the Blazers rebuild from the ground up.
Despite a tumultuous split this past off-season, the city of Portland and Damian Lillard still have a love for each other that’s hard to put into words, and it’ll be on full display as he takes the Moda Center floor as an opponent.
A Dominant Offensive Performance
Over the past four games, Blazer fans have witnessed something they’ve been waiting all season for – domination.
DeAndre “Dominayton” Ayton has finally started to live up to his self-proclaimed nickname, a long-awaited development given the big man’s struggles in a Portland Trail Blazer uniform. Over the past four games, Ayton has averaged 19.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 64.3 percent shooting from the field, a massive increase over his seasonal numbers of 13.4 points, 10.5 points, and 54.9 percent shooting, and it’s come with a couple of notable changes in how he’s used offensively.
Ayton has 37 dunks on the season, nine of which have come in his last two games, including multiple lob plays both in the pick-n-roll and off-ball movement involving Ayton as both a screen-slipper and someone who can be a lethal lob target when a back-screen is set for him.
On pick-n-rolls, Ayton had regularly cut his rolls short around the free throw line, often resulting in a mid-range shot after his defender rotates to stop the drive at the rim. More recently, Ayton is rolling to the rim, and Blazer guards’ are routinely punishing defenders for helping too far onto them with lobs over the top, resulting in dunks. These pick-n-rolls are becoming extremely efficient offense for a Blazer team that is one of the most inefficient teams in the league.
During Portland’s previous game against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Blazers had some of the best off-ball action we’ve seen all season long, drawing up various plays involving Ayton screening for Anfernee Simons or Jerami Grant, then slipping behind the defense for a backdoor lob. Simons and Grant draw a lot of attention from opposing defenses and can counter that with Ayton rolling off these off-ball screens toward the rim. Portland has also started to invert these actions, with Anfernee Simons setting backscreens for DeAndre Ayton instead of flying off his screens. These plays are set up similarly but are effectively different. This offense resulted in a 38-point second quarter and 36 points in both the third and fourth quarters.
While the Sixers were shorthanded, the Blazers showcased how effective their offense can be when they escape the stagnation and isolation-heavy basketball that has plagued them all season. Strangely, head coach Chauncey Billups has advocated ball and player movement since arriving in Portland but has struggled to implement it outside occasional flashes. Hopefully, this offense is something the Blazers can start to execute more consistently than they have in the past.