• Damian Lillard is known as a shooter first and foremost. It’s no surprise why. The Portland Trail Blazers star has launched at least six 3-point attempts per game dating back to his rookie season, and takes more difficult long-range shots than any player in the league save for Steph Curry. Lillard’s reputation as perhaps the game’s deadliest crunch-time scorer was first built on the game-winning, series-deciding triple he made against the Houston Rockets in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, too.

    But boiling the scope of his brilliance down to long-range shooting ability does Lillard’s development a major disservice. It’s not that he’s focusing any less on that aspect of his game, as evidenced by career-highs of 8.2 3-point attempts per game and a 4.3 3-point rate. But what’s sparked the most scintillating stretch of Lillard’s career, and maybe saved Portland’s playoff hopes in the process, is his newfound proficiency at the rim.

    Lillard is averaging 29.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game since January 16, with a true shooting percentage of 64.7. Over 40 percent shooting on nearly nine 3-point attempts per game contributes to that incredible efficiency, of course, but is hardly the sole means behind it. Lillard has also gotten to the free throw line more frequently over the last nine weeks of play, making 92.3 percent of his 7.6 tries per game, 1.1 more than his average prior to mid January.

    That uptick in free throws is no accident. Lillard hasn’t been any more aggressive putting his head down and getting to the rim during this stint than he was prior. He actually averaged 12.8 drives per game before January 16, per NBA.com/stats, a hair more than his average in the interim. The effectiveness of Lillard’s penetration has certainly reached new heights, though, a classic case of the statistics supporting the eye test.

    Lillard is shooting 52.9 percent on drives in Portland’s last 17 games, seventh-best in the league among players who have averaged at least 10 drives per game over that timeframe, and better than the likes of Jimmy Butler, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan. His field goal percentage on drives before January 16? A middling to subpar 45.2 percent, right in line with previously established norms of his career.

    The sample size here is small enough that Lillard’s improved accuracy among the trees could be an anomaly, chalked up to simple chance or quality of opponents. But it also coincides with a dietary switch away from the highly-publicized vegan regimen the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder undertook during the offseason – and apparently caused him to get a bit too light.

    “I did it, but I started to lose a little bit too much weight with all the games and practices and all that,” Lillard said on ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, recorded January 17. “I had to balance it out, so now I’ve been mixing it up a little bit more, having vegan meals, still mixing it up with other stuff.”

    The exact timing of Lillard reverting back to his normal diet is unknown. Combined with a period over late December and early January that saw him miss seven of nine games to rest a nagging right hamstring injury, though, it stands to reason that Lillard’s increased weight has led to increased strength, prompting the type of tough, physical finishes that were absent over the season’s first two months – and for the vast majority of his career.

    The three-time All-Star is shooting 60.9 percent from the restricted area since January 16, compared to 55.2 percent during his first 36 games of the season. Finishing has never been one of Lillard’s biggest strengths. It was progress in that regard that made him a different player beginning in 2014-15, no longer just a daring marksman who defenders could pressure 30 feet from the basket with the confidence he’d come up empty at the rim.

    That 60.9 percent clip in the restricted area, by the way, wouldn’t even be Lillard’s career-high over a full season. But unlike three seasons ago, when that personal best of 61.8 percent was set, he’s now producing points via penetration at a truly elite rate. How? Drawing fouls. In his last 17 games, Lillard is scoring on 74.0 percent of his drives to the basket, best in the league among high-volume penetrators. By contrast, when he was most accurate at the rim in 2014-15, Lillard scored a point or more on 54.9 percent of his drives, a solid but hardly spectacular ratio.

    Put more simply, Lillard is shooting 2.5 free throws per game off drives alone, and making them at a 92.9 percent clip. Only Harden, Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James have been to the line courtesy of penetration more often than Lillard recently. That’s pretty good company, obviously, especially for an average-sized guard who lacks the physical trump cards each of those luminaries possess.

    On the final possession of the Blazers’ game against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, Lillard, who had scored 11 of his team’s last 15 points to tie the score at 104-104, was being tightly guarded by Elfrid Payton just a few feet past halfcourt.

    “I think Elfrid is playing him too close here,” color analyst Eddie Johnson as the game clock crept below five seconds. “This is dangerous.”

    One left side blow-by and awkward right-handed finish through traffic later, Lillard had given Portland a 106-104 lead with just .9 seconds remaining. Payton, according to Johnson, at least, made the wrong choice defensively. But with Lillard shooting like Steph and finishing like LeBron these days, what better option did the Suns new point guard really have?

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