PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts expects guard Damian Lillard to make a quick adjustment to playoff basketball.
“I think he’ll be a seasoned veteran five minutes into Game 1,” Stotts said.
The second-year starter has always played beyond his years.
Last season Lillard ran away with the league’s Rookie of the Year race, leading all first-year players with a 19-point scoring average. He also averaged 6.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds, playing in all 82 games.
He broke Stephen Curry’s rookie record for 3-pointers in a season, finishing with 185, and became just the third NBA rookie with at least 1,500 points and 500 assists, following Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson.
And he swept all six of the league’s Rookie of the Month awards.
This season, Lillard became the first player to participate in all five events connected to the All-Star game: the Future Stars game, the skills challenge, the 3-point shootout, the dunk contest and finally the All-Star game itself.
And now he’s ready to test himself in the playoffs.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Lillard said. “For me, I’m just going to try and go into it and play it like another basketball game, and not put too much pressure on the fact that it’s my first playoff game, or that we’re on the road, or all those other things. I’m just going to try and play like it’s another basketball game.”
The Blazers open their first-round series against the Rockets on Sunday night in Houston.
Portland won 54 games this season and returns to the playoffs after a two-year absence. The Blazers won their final five games of the season and nine of their last 10 going into the postseason.
The Rockets also won 54 games this season, with 33 victories at home to rank fourth in the league.
Lillard is averaging 20.7 points this season, second on the team to fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (23.2). Lillard leads the Blazers with an average of 5.6 assists.
Last season Lillard led the league with 3,167 minutes, but this season he’s played a slightly more reasonable 2,937 – still most on the team – because the Blazers acquired veteran point guard Mo Williams in the offseason to take some of the load off Lillard.
“Last season people kept asking me about the rookie wall,” Stotts said. “He never hit the rookie wall.”
Always poised, Lillard was diplomatic when discussing the Rockets. Houston took the season series against the Blazers 3-1. In a game on March 9, Lillard and Rockets guard Patrick Beverley jawed on the court then continued with the barbs following Houston’s 118-113 win in overtime. Lillard was sent to the bench in the extra period after an offensive foul on Beverley that some questioned.
After the game Lillard called the situation “irritating” and suggested Beverly was flopping, while Beverley told a sports radio show that Lillard “whines.”
“I’m not really going to go into individual matchups and stuff like that,” Lillard said Friday following practice. “I’m just going to go out and be myself.”
Beverley wasn’t going to provide bulletin board fodder either.
“There’s no personal battles at all,” he said after Houston’s workout. “It’s a team game. It’s the Houston Rockets versus the Portland Trail Blazers, not Patrick Beverley versus Damian Lillard.”
Lillard says his teammates have already prepared him for the increased bump-and-grind of playoff basketball.
“They just tell me that it’s really physical. Teams are going to be locked in on our tendencies and the plays we like to run,” he said. “It’s just to come down to competing and being able to make plays.”