• 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?

Fantasy News

  • Terry Rozier
    PG, Charlotte Hornets

    The Hornets are the latest team to re-open their facilities, with the Novant Health Training Center set to open up on Tuesday.

    With this, there are only eight teams left to open their practice courts back up, though nobody has been able to engage in any sort of team work yet. Individual workouts are better than no workouts, however, and the league appears to be getting its ducks in a row in terms of returning to play. There's still no firm timelines but things do appear to be heading in the right direction.

    Source: Charlotte Hornets

  • Jon Leuer
    PF, Milwaukee Bucks

    Jon Leuer has announced his retirement from basketball.

    Injuries completely destroyed Leuer's career, as he played in a combined 49 games over the previous two seasons with zero appearances in the 2019-20 campaign. Leuer's high point came with the Suns, where he averaged 8.5 points to go with 5.6 rebounds, 0.6 steals, 0.4 blocks and a 38.2 mark from deep. His eight-year career comes to an end, with Leuer saying that his body simply won't let him play at a high level anymore.

    Source: Jon Leuer on Instagram

  • Kyrie Irving
    PG, Brooklyn Nets

    Following Governor Andrew Cuomo's greenlight from earlier on Sunday, the Nets will reopen their practice facilities on Tuesday.

    The team will open its doors to voluntary player workouts. The team's statement went on to elaborate that they would strictly follow NBA and infectious disease expert protocols as they resume activities. It's another small step in the right direction as the NBA continues its climb towards trying to play actual games.

    Source: Malika Andrews on Twitter

  • Kemba Walker
    PG, Boston Celtics

    Kemba Walker feels that his left knee hampered him earlier this year because of all of the basketball he's played over the course of his career.

    The knee pain has been a constant this season, and Walker has missed eight games due to the injury overall. He should be fully recovered for when the season does resume at this point, and if he is able to get enough practice reps in he'll be able to avoid any restrictions whenever the league-wide shutdown is lifted.

    Source: The Athletic

  • Ante Zizic
    PF, Cleveland Cavaliers

    If Ante Zizic chooses to leave the NBA when he hits free agency this offseason, he could draw interest from Maccabi Tel Aviv.

    Zizic had a lot of success in 2016-17 when he was last in the Euro League with Darussafaka, averaging 9 points and 6.7 rebounds in under 21 minutes per game. In comparison, he's been an afterthought for the Cavs this season, only averaging 10 minutes per game. Moreover, the Cavs declined to pick up his player option for next season, and they already have plenty of options for the frontcourt between Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr., and possibly DeAndre Drummond (player option). Maccabi will have to see how much salary flexibility they have this offseason as ticket sales are likely to take a hit in Israel next year.

    Source: Euro Hoops

  • Kevin Durant
    SF, Brooklyn Nets

    On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that professional sports teams based in New York may resume operations immediately.

    With Governor Cuomo's green light in place the Knicks and Nets are now just waiting for Adam Silver's seal of approval on getting back into there facilities. The majority of the league now has state approval to access their practice facilities and the NBA is slowly ramping up activities in hopes of resuming games in July.

    Source: Andrew Cuomo on Twitter

  • LeBron James
    SF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Ramona Shelburne of ESPN reported that the NBA has entered "exploratory conversations" with Disney on restarting the season at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.

    NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said the NBA and NBPA have discussed with Disney on restarting the season in late July. Marc Stein reported on Friday that it is looking increasingly likely that games will resume in July, and it appears that the stage for the rest of the 2019-20 season is likely to be Orlando.

    Source: ESPN

  • LaMelo Ball
    PG, International

    The Knicks have LaMelo Ball as their top-rated point guard for the 2020 NBA Draft.

    The Knicks have a need at point guard and Ball is considered the point guard with the highest upside in this draft. He had poor shooting numbers in his 12 games in the NBL this past season, shooting .250 from deep and .375 from the field. He is a gifted passer though and averaged 6.8 assists per game in 31.3 minutes, adding 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals. If Ball was drafted by the Knicks, he could help younger players RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson get easier looks. Ball will likely be given an opportunity to run the offense by the team that drafts him and he could put up big assists numbers. He also has an impressive steal rate in limited play in Australia, but his shooting percentages are a big concern.

    Source: SNY

  • Bradley Beal
    SG, Washington Wizards

    Bradley Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, said “There are no Beal Sweepstakes and that’s why he re-signed with the Wizards.”

    Bartelstein continued to say “Brad re-signed with the Wizards because he wanted to stay in Washington and the Wizards wanted to keep him there.” Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News reported earlier in the week that the Nets had internal discussions with the Wizards for Beal. A trade out of Washington would likely hurt Beal’s fantasy value, but it’s not worth putting too much stock into trade rumors for Beal in dynasty leagues.

    Source: Forbes

  • Jonathan Isaac
    PF, Orlando Magic

    Jonathan Isaac, who sustained a serious left knee injury in January, said his knee is "feeling strong" and that he has been squatting increasingly more weight recently.

    Isaac also said recently that he's open to returning if and when the NBA season is resumed and as long as the Magic organization is on-board with it. He has been running on an anti-gravity treadmill and indicated that his knee feels "110 percent" after more than four months of rehab. Isaac is a huge part of the Magic's future and it remains to be seen whether or not they will take the risk.

    Source: John Denton on Twitter