• A significant portion of the NBA fan base believes Damian Lillard is basketball’s preeminent closer.

    With Kobe Bryant long retired, LeBron James and James Harden incessantly subject to casual scrutiny, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant splitting shots and spotlights in Oakland, and upstart superstars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid marginalized by playing from the inside-out, the Portland Trail Blazers cornerstone has emerged as the player efficiency-loving stat nerds and hero-ball worshipping old heads alike agree is perhaps the league’s most dangerous with the game on the line. The fourth quarter, after all, is called “Lillard Time” for a reason, and not just due to increasingly-faded memories of his series-clinching game-winner over the Houston Rockets in the 2014 playoffs. Last season, Lillard tied for the league lead in field goals made with under 60 seconds left and the score within one point, and ranked top-four in the same category the previous two years. His clutch bonafides are undeniable.

    More than a third of the way into 2018-19, Lillard’s late-game performance has yet to align with his well-earned reputation. As a result of Terry Stotts’ adherence to utilizing all-bench lineups, Lillard is averaging fewer fourth-quarter minutes than any other season of his career, shooting just 37.5 percent from the field and 28.9 percent from beyond the arc in the process. But the 18-13 Blazers have stayed afloat in the second half regardless, posting a net rating of +1.8 after intermission, per NBA.com/stats – tenth-best in basketball, and .5 points per 100 possessions better than their first-half mark.

    How is Portland, top-heavy and inconsistent as ever, managing to win second halves despite Lillard’s subpar play late, then? He’s just putting on the cape earlier than in years past, rescuing his team from frustratingly punchless starts by dominating in the third quarter. Lillard, after dropping 15 third-quarter points during his team’s come-from-behind win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, leads the NBA by averaging 10.4 points in the third quarter – over a full point more than James Harden’s runner-up number. Lillard’s 322 points scored in the third quarter is 57 more than Kevin Durant’s first-quarter tally, second-highest among any individual total compiled in a given quarter this season. He’s racking up points with staggering efficiency, too, shooting 51.0 percent overall and 51.1 percent from three.

    The most impressive aspect of Lillard’s play in third quarters so far this season, though, is the ease with which he flips the switch from table-setter to alpha-dog scorer, a change he insists is all part of the pre-game plan.

    “First half, I’m just letting the game happen,” he said, after leading the Blazers to their third consecutive victory.  “If I come out and I’m getting open looks, then I’ll be more aggressive in the first half. Most of the time I’m setting guys up, managing the game, seeing what’s going on and taking what comes to me. In that third quarter, that’s usually when you can tell what direction the game is going in. The game is decided in the second half, so I usually try to get more aggressive, impose my will more so then than in the first half.”

    The eye test certainly supports the notion of Lillard amping up his aggressiveness in the third quarter, a reality also backed up by more nuanced statistics. It’s not just hot jump-shooting that has Lillard setting scoreboards ablaze immediately following halftime. Rather, he adjusts his shot profile to maximize the effects of additional usage, raising his free-throw rate to .46 from a game-long .37 and three-point rate to .46 from .40, while lowering his percentage of points scored from mid-range. Lillard’s 68.9 true shooting percentage in the third quarter is indeed mind-blowing, but hardly some fluke attributed mostly to a few standout games scattered among the season’s first two months. He simply changes his offensive approach in the third, abusing defenses with a new sense of vigor by relentlessly attacking the rim and launching away from deep.

    Wednesday’s win marked the 15th game this season Lillard has scored in double-figures during the third quarter, and fourth in the past five games. He’s drained multiple threes nine times and made at least four free throws 12 times, routinely dragging his team back from sizable halftime deficits or keeping it within striking distance before the fourth quarter begins. Just imagine, then, how much better the Blazers will be once Lillard regularly sustains his third-quarter mojo through brief stints on the bench before re-entering for closing time.

    Expecting him to replicate that level of play is setting yourself up for disappointment – not just with regard to the fourth quarter, but the prior one, too. Lillard has been so dominant in the third quarter through the season’s first 31 games that his numbers are bound to come back down to earth. Still, tweaks to his shot profile and overall playing style portend major ongoing success in the third quarter regardless, and suggest the likelihood that his late-game struggles are rooted more in bad luck than a sudden inability to conjure crunch-time heroics.

    Not that the many of us with Lillard Time, of course, even assumed much differently.

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