Damian Lillard could feel it almost immediately.
He had just finished playing in his first All-Star Game, a nine points in nine minutes performance in the West’s losing effort in New Orleans, which capped a five-events-in-three-days weekend for the second-year point guard out of Weber State.
The feeling wasn’t one of fatigue, which some thought might be an issue with his participating in so many events and appearances during the NBA’s spotlight weekend. It wasn’t relief at finally having some time to himself after spending almost all of his waking hours being shuttled from one venue to the next. And it wasn’t awe from rubbing elbows on the court and on the bench with some of the best players in NBA history.
Rather, it was a feeling of confidence that washed over Lillard after gaining admittance into one of the NBA’s most exclusive clubs.
“Just being around these guys, I’m already feeling more confident,” said Lillard after the 2014 All-Star Game. “My confidence was high before and now I’m taking more confidence from this just because now I feel like I’m one of them, I’m one of those guys. Can’t wait to take that attitude back to my team.”
The timing of that boost couldn’t have been better for the Trail Blazers, as LaMarcus Aldridge sat out the first five games directly following the All-Star break with a left groin strain. Portland went 4-1 in those games, with Lillard averaging 27.2 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, numbers well above his season averages.
“I feel, going into each game, that I’m an All-Star now, I’m a part of that group of top players,” said Lillard. “And I need to play like it, especially with my team being a man down, our best player being out, that’s the best time to show it.”
Two weeks have passed since the NBA trading deadline, two weeks for Matt Barnes to contemplate his future with the Clippers.
Barnes has elevated his game during that time, but it still appears to weigh on the small forward that he was among Clippers mentioned in trade talks with the New York Knicks.
Rather than sulk, Barnes has seemed to use that as fuel for perhaps his best stretch of games all season.
In six games after the trade deadline passed, Barnes averaged 17.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists before the Clippers played the Lakers on Thursday night at Staples Center.
Barnes shot lights out during that span, making 58.8% of his attempts, 51.3% (20 for 39) of his three-point tries.
He has said he just wanted to “stay aggressive,” but it appears as if he’s trying to prove a point to the Clippers’ front office.
Barnes signed a three-year, $10.2-million deal with the Clippers last summer and wants to remain here.
Now he is letting his recent play do most of the talking for him.
For five years DeRozan has stewed in Toronto, pushing along his career arc in slow churns for a losing team. But this is the season it all pays off. DeRozan’s first All-Star berth will likely coincide with his first playoff appearance, a joint development indicative of real progress. The ninth pick in the 2009 draft hasn’t simply emerged as the kind of player who can average 22.9 points per game (or more than 32, as he has over his last three games), but the kind who can pull off that production without glaring detriment.
When framed by a certain tack, volume scoring can be a virtue. But those particulars escaped DeRozan even as recently as last season, when his time on the floor — and then-career-best scoring marks — came with a four-point drop in Toronto’s offensive efficiency. Such is the cost of experimentation. The Raptors were able to put DeRozan in all sorts of offensive roles and situations last season, to the point that he spent much of the year out of his comfort zone. He still is, in fact, as the broadening of his game has urged a broadening of his responsibilities. Toronto asks a lot of DeRozan, and so far he’s responded with genuine growth.
This is player development in action. Through repetition on repetition on repetition, new skills and instincts are becoming hard-wired. Much of the improvement now visible has been seasons in the making, as Raptors coach Dwane Casey gave DeRozan freedom to build his game. He trusted the developing guard through growing pains, running his offense to feed DeRozan on the block or put him in position to create from the wing. DeRozan’s passivity with the ball slowly dissipated, and over time the Raptors began looking to the 24-year-old as a fallback option when set plays broke down. DeRozan grew into that role simply by having it expected of him.
Damian Lillard can still remember that Saturday morning in college. He was a freshman at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, and the basketball team was scheduled to make an appearance with some Special Olympics athletes at the campus recreation center.
“I showed up and I was half-hearted about it,’’ Lillard remembered on Monday. “It was a mandatory thing with the team, and my feeling was the only reason I was there was because it was something I have to do.’’
But then everything changed.
The athletes swarmed the team. One in particular took a fancy to Lillard.
“Jason Deppen,’’ Lillard said with a smile. “He was so happy to see me. He knew my name and everything, said I was going to make the NBA.’’
The next thing Lillard remembers, he was joining the Special Olympians in the layup line. Then he began throwing alley-oop passes. He says he still remembers the trash talk from some, saying they could dunk better than him, but more than anything, he remembers how much electricity and joy there was in the gym.
“I realized then, that I could change someone’s attitude, change someone’s mentality,’’ Lillard said. “I knew if I ever got to the NBA, I could have even that much more impact. So since that day, I’ve always wanted to be a part of Special Olympics. That’s when I really bought into it.’’
Today is the Special Olympics organization’s sixth annual national “Spread the Word to End the Word” day that is aimed at eliminating the use of the words “retard” and “retarded.” Lillard, who last summer was named a Global Ambassador for Special Olympics, has taken a pledge along with other NBA players such as Zach Randolph, to take a stand against the R-word.
“The purpose is to raise awareness, making people more conscious of how they pick their words,’’ Lillard said. “To just know that when you say stuff you can really hurt people, offend people. And that can go with a lot of other words. So if I can put my name behind that, and put the word out and make people pay attention to it, then this is a worthy cause.’’
Matt Barnes has admitted that all the trade chatter bothered the Clippers’ starting small forward.
Since not being traded away at the trade deadline last Thursday, Barnes has played perhaps his best basketball of the season.
In the three games since then, Barnes has averaged 17 points and 5.6 rebounds. He has shot 54.4% from the field, a sizzling 60% (12-for-20) from three-point range.
Barnes had his best game last Sunday at Oklahoma City, scoring 24 points on eight-for-14 shooting, six-for-10 from three-point range.
“Matt is playing terrific,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s really buying in.
Defensively, he’s doing all the little things. He’s running to the deep corners and they are finding him.”