It is amazing that their paths have never crossed in the playoffs, considering Portland point guard Damian Lillard has led his Trail Blazers to five straight postseasons, while Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook led the Thunder to the playoffs in eight of the last nine years, only missing the season ex-teammate Kevin Durant sat out 55 regular season games with injury.
Both men are the leaders of their respective teams (OKC is 34-19 and Portland, 32-21) and perennial All-Stars playing bigger than their listings and always controlling the ball in all of basketball’s pivotal moments for two top West squads.
On Monday, February 11, Lillard will square off against Westbrook in a Blazer-Thunder game at OKC, which precedes their next annual meeting when the two play—depending on tonight’s draft, as teammates or adversaries—in the 2019 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte February 17.
For Westbrook, it is his eighth such honor; for Lillard, it is his fourth All-Star Game.
|Damian Lillard||52 (35.3)||26.2||4.5||6.3||1.1||0.5||+4.13||23.6||.589|
Stats through February 6, 2019
Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assist per game; SPG steals per game; BPG blocks per game; RPM Real Plus-Minus; PER Player Efficiency Rating; TSP true shooting percentage.
Sources: Basketball-Reference and ESPN.com
There are not too many guards who can keep up with Lillard when it comes to scoring. In fact, the only two who can top him are past NBA MVPs James Harden and Stephen Curry. Lillard ranks third among guards in points per game (26.2) and specializes in pull-up jumpers—from both the perimeter and midrange—registering 9.3 points per game on pull-us, which ranks fourth in the NBA (he does so at an efficient .513 effective field goal rate). What makes Lillard especially dangerous here is that he will pull up from three-point range just as often as he will in two-point zone, which makes him impossible to guard (Lillard makes 36.8 percent of his 3s and makes 2.8 three-pointers per game, which ranks eighth in the NBA).
On the flip side, Westbrook is not a threat to pull-up effectively—he makes 5.9 pull-up points per game and only has a .349 effective field goal rate (22.6 percent on pull-up 3s)—making him somewhat predictable as a take-it-to-the-hole scoring threat (he is third among guards in fastbreak points per game, only behind LeBron James and Curry) or a drive-by passer. Westbrook averages 21.4 points (a nine-year low) in 35.5 minutes per game, and has a woeful .481 true shooting percentage).
Westbrook may be a bad shooter, but he is not a selfish ball hog. He is fourth in the NBA in drives per game (16.9)—only trailing Harden, DeMar DeRozan and Trae Young—and most of the Thunder guard’s attacks are done with the intention of passing. In fact, of the League’s top 15 drivers, only Westbrook passes on the majority of his drives, with a drive-assist ratio that ranks first among those top 15 drivers. That is part of the reason why he leads the NBA in both assists per game (11.1) and assist points created per game (26.5). It does not hurt that his League-leading 11.0 rebounds per game gets him a head-start running downhill in transition, always keeping the defense on its heels. Meanwhile, Lillard is no slouch with 15.2 assist points created per game and 6.3 assists per game. But he is not in Westbrook’s class as a playmaker.
While neither Westbrook nor Lillard is an All-Defense candidate, they both have improved over the years. At similar size (Lillard is 6-3, 195; Westbrook, 6-3, 200), they are never outmuscled by opposing point guards and neither one is a liability. In fact, their defensive cohesiveness can be seen in their team’s improvement in defensive efficiency over the seasons, with Portland ranking sixth as a team in 2017-18 and OKC ranking fourth in 2018-19.
Westbrook too is known to take chances to get himself in transition, thanks to his 2.2 steals per game which ranks second in the League to teammate Paul George. It is always a spectacle to see Westbrook and Lillard play each other head-to-head—so much so, we cannot wait until we eventually see a postseason matchup between Portland and OKC. Neither gives an inch to the other, with Westbrook outscoring Lillard in the head-to-head duels (30.3 to 22.5 points per game), but Dame D.O.L.L.A. does make it difficult for Westbrook, holding the Thunder guard to .532 true shooting percentage (Lillard has a .572 in these head-to-heads). As of now, Lillard’s team has the upper hand in the 21 matchups thus far, winning 11 and losing 10.
The 28-year-old Lillard seems to have grown into the leadership role with his Portland crew sooner than the 30-year-old Westbrook realized it in OKC, though both share similar terrain today.
Nowadays, Westbrook’s growth is not threatened by ceding control at times to MVP candidate Paul George and unsung strong-man center Steven Adams. Both quarterbacks lead in their own ways, which is a tribute to Westbrook who has been in a more delegation mode this season than in years past (his usage rate peaked at 41.7 percent in pre-George, post-Durant 2016-17 and is now at a nine-year low at 30.7 percent).
As for Lillard, he is the straw that stirs Portland’s drink and has maintained a good team balance for years. Unlike other stars, he has remained steadfast to his situation, his name never showing up on rumor mills at wanting out of Portland for a bigger spotlight. Lillard has helped cultivate teammates—whether we see the emergence of fellow guard C.J. McCollum, as we did the last couple years, or young center Jusuf Nurkic, as we are seeing this season. There is no doubt the Trail Blazers are Lillard’s team. The Blazers have come to trust Lillard to make the right play, time and time again.
Most people do not realize how much better Westbrook makes his teammates, but the plus-minus numbers do not lie. This season, Westbrook’s Thunder mates are +7.8 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court and they are +8.6 better in comparison to when he is off court. Last season, he had similar metrics (+6.3 on, +12.0 on-off).
On the other side, Lillard’s 2018-19 metrics are +5.9 and +12.6, while his 2017-18 metrics are +5.8 and +9.4. There really is not much difference here between the two, other than perhaps the public perception.
In years past, we may have sided with the triple-doubling Westbrook, and not just because of the sexy double-digit points, rebounds and assists. But we may have given him the slight edge due to seniority. However, Lillard has accomplished as a solo All-Star in Oregon and he just keeps getting better and better every season. Though this matchup is as tight as one you’ll ever see, we must give a little edge to Lillard for all the big strides he has made over the years. You know what time it is.