In a clash pitting Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard’s volume scoring versus Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball’s pass-first, pass-second and passive-third brand of offensive management, Lillard’s 32 points were Exhibit A in how a point guard with a vast array of ways to get his own buckets can wreak a different type of havoc.
In the final seven minutes of a nail-biter, neither team extended its lead beyond three points, and in the final 18 seconds both teams delivered offensive fireworks. With 16 seconds left, Lakers wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sprinted off a screen, caught the inbounds pass, turned and drilled a rainbow 3-pointer to knot the score at 110, setting the stage for Lillard to gut L.A.
On the ensuing possession, Lillard dribbled down the clock before getting Brandon Ingram off balance with a nifty crossover move. He then stepped back and arched a rainbow 3 through the cylinder to give Portland a 113-110 lead with only 0.7 seconds remaining in regulation.
It was the type of dagger-through-the-heart that Lillard has trademarked throughout his criminally underrated career. While Lillard showed moxie by calmly manifesting buckets out of thin air and tallying five assists for good measure on the second night of a back-to-back, Ball crawled into a shell for 29 minutes. The rookie shirked the spotlight, dishing four assists and attempting only two field goals to cap the first scoreless outing of his pro career.
Still, Lakers head coach Luke Walton didn’t sound any alarms about Ball’s disappearing act afterwards. Via ESPN:
“I thought he was a little too passive tonight,” Walton said “I think that’ll continue to be … the hardest thing for young players is the consistency when you just play so many games. He’s so unselfish. We want him to be more aggressive with attacking the defenses. I feel like tonight was one of those nights where he was more passive with it than looking to really attack them.”
Ball’s limited scoring arsenal is no secret, but opposing point guards feasting on Lillard’s phantom defense are a league tradition. Just Wednesday night, Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, who began the evening averaging a Lonzo-like 33 percent shooting percentage, poured in a season-high 28 points, alongside Ricky Rubio, who notched 30.
Instead of giving the Lakers’ offense a turbo boost against Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Ball seemed more terrified of his own shot. As we embark upon the second month of this season, Ball’s 29-point outburst against the Phoenix Suns two weeks ago looks more like a blip than a forecast of what’s to come. Against Portland, Kyle Kuzma emerged as L.A.’s go-to rookie and carried them in spurts, scoring 11 points in his first 10 minutes and finishing with 22 on 10-of-17 shooting.
Ball’s problems pulling up off his right-handed dribble persist and reared their ugly head on one of his two attempts. In the second quarter, he tried dribbling right off a screen and firing a 28-foot pull-up. His slow windup release gave Blazers forward Maurice Harkless just enough time to step up and graze the shot with his outstretched arms.
Lonzo Ball is the 1st top-5 pick to play at least 28 minutes and go scoreless as a rookie since Dikembe Mutombo in 1992. pic.twitter.com/JqjJSuRrzX
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 3, 2017
Ball’s aversion to looking for his own shot is concerning, and his timid shot selection amplifies the problem. The rookie’s immeasurable influence gets the credit for every teammate who advances the ball in transition or makes an extra pass or hockey assist, but the idea that he’s priming the Lakers pump may simply be an optimistic attempt to polish a truth turd.
The Lakers’ on/off numbers suggest they score at a more efficient rate when Ball is on the pine. His passing ability is special, but his handles are suboptimal, and until he begins devising ways to create his own shot, Ball may continue being a one-dimensional drag on the offense. He has to pick himself up off the ground quickly for the Lakers’ matchup against a beatable Brooklyn Nets team and a motivated D’Angelo Russell on Friday night.