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Damian Lillard, driving against Trey Burke during the Rising Stars game last week, has led the Trail Blazers to a surprising 36-18 record going into the weekend.

Gerald Herbert • Associated Press,

NBA Insider: Blazers' Lillard expects success

  • Article by: Jerry Zgoda
  • Star Tribune
  • February 22, 2014 - 5:37 PM

When Portland guard Damian Lillard won consecutive games at Detroit and Cleveland earlier this season with a game-winning shot each night, he did so in different ways.

Well, sort of.

He beat the Pistons with just one-tenth of a second left in overtime after he stutter-stepped, drove, spun and lost control of the ball for a moment before he found just enough space to create a 14-foot shot that found net as the clock’s final seconds ticked away.

Two nights later, he left an extra tenth of a second — a whopping two-tenths left in the fourth quarter this time — on the clock when he launched a three-point shot with one foot on the Cavaliers’ half-court logo that decided a tied game.

But both times his reaction was the same sort of understatement: He walked defiantly away — no jumping, no fist-pumping, no reaction at all really other than removing his mouth guard the first time — while his teammates handled all the celebrating around him.

Just like he has done this all life ...

“When you work so much at things, you start to expect results,” he said. “When I take those shots, I expect to make them. I’m confident. It’s not always necessary to yell and scream about everything. Sometimes it’s necessary, but if I didn’t do it I didn’t feel like it was necessary.”

He is just 23 and still fresh enough in the NBA to become the first player ever who qualified and participated in all five All-Star events last weekend in New Orleans.

“It’s amazing. I see his growth every year,” Blazers teammate LaMarcus Aldridge said. “He has gotten better every year.”

Every year, in this case, isn’t even two full seasons.

The sixth player taken in the 2012 NBA draft out of little Weber State, Lillard is young enough to have played in the All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars Challenge that is limited to rookies and sophomores and yet he has played with a maturity well beyond his years. He is averaging 20.9 points and 5.7 assists per game this season.

He earned Rookie of the Year honors last season, played alongside Aldridge in his first All-Star Game last Sunday and has helped lead the Blazers into contention for home-court advantage in the playoffs with a 36-18 record entering this weekend.

It looks like it has all come so easy …

“I can’t say I expected it,” Lillard said. “It’s tough. You work so hard and you expect to be successful, but things don’t happen this fast. I mean, Rookie of the Year, All-Star team, my team is playing great. You’ve got to be thankful for it. I’m blessed to be in this position.”

He will lead the Blazers into Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves in Portland without Aldridge at his side. He is expected to miss the first week coming out of the All-Star break so he can let strained groin muscles heal.

Without him, Lillard will carry on, fearless when it comes to taking the big shot at game’s end or any shot, it seems. Wolves coach Rick Adelman wondered aloud after a game against the Blazers in December how you stop a guy who just keeps stepping back further each time with the same shooting accuracy.

“I think that’s how you’ve got to approach, like you’re going to make every one,” Lillard said. “You go into last shot … if you’re playing against these level of players and you don’t have that confidence about yourself that they do, that just makes the game harder for you and you get embarrassed that way.

“I try to keep my confidence high, make myself believe I’m supposed to do things like that.”

NBA short takes

Been there, done that

Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart — an expected lottery pick this summer in a stacked NBA draft — returned Saturday after serving a three-game suspension for shoving a hostile Texas Tech fan.

It’s an incident that brought back memories for Wolves star Kevin Love about that night during his one season at UCLA, a night he returned to play at Oregon in front of fans outraged he didn’t stay home to play his college ball.

He said Oregon fans distributed his cellphone number on the Internet and left death-threat messages, pelted family members with popcorn boxes and empty cups and made his grandmother cry. They also insulted him with homophobic chants on a night when Love delivered a 26-point, 18-rebound performance in a UCLA victory.

“There are certain times when it really does cross the line and being a fan you can take it too far,” Love said. “You don’t want to see that in sports.”

Everybody’s a critic …

Kobe Bryant didn’t think much of his Lakers trading veteran guard Steve Blake to Golden State on Thursday in a move that saved the team $4 million and brought back young players Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks.

Bryant took to Twitter, posting, “Not cool with @SteveBlake4 being gone AT ALL One of my closest teammates and psycho competitor GS pick up gem #smartmove.”

Comeback kid

Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook is back after he returned for Thursday’s resounding home loss to Miami. He wrote Happy Birthday to his mom on the bottom of his sneakers, scored 16 points and played nearly 24 minutes after he missed 27 games because of a knee injury that also delayed the start of his season.

“I’m very excited for him,” teammate Kevin Durant said afterward. “He gets to play the game he loves again. He looked really good out there. We’ll see next game. He looks good today.”

Wolves' week ahead

Sunday: 8 p.m. at Portland (FSN)

Tuesday: 8 p.m. at Phoenix (FSN)

Saturday: 9 p.m. at Sacramento (FSN)

Player to watch:

Goran Dragic, Suns

If you want to know why the surprising Suns are 10 games over .500 and steaming toward the playoffs, look no further than the Slovenian point guard, who is leading them there even while backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe is out injured.

Voices

"Really? C’mon …"

Wolves coach Rick Adelman when asked about an unsourced Twitter posting by longtime NBA columnist Peter Vecsey that said star Kevin Love told the team he will opt out of his contract in 2015 so he can play elsewhere.

© 2014 Star Tribune