Appreciating each other's finer points
Blazers-Spurs: Damian Lillard faces Tony Parker, whose game he has long studied
SAN ANTONIO -- As a 16-year-old kid growing up in Oakland, California, Damian Lillard had plenty of NBA point guards right from the Bay Area he could aspire to play like.
Of course there was Gary Payton, the trash-talking, defensive dynamo who backed down to nobody. Not even Michael Jordan. He went to Skyline High before teaming up first with Shawn Kemp to win over fans with their high-flying antics and later with Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade to win his first ring.
Then there was Jason Kidd, the court magician with eyes in the back of his head who could dominate a game without even taking a shot. He went St. Joseph Notre Dame in nearby Alameda, California, before going on to rack up triple-doubles on the regular through a couple of Finals runs with New Jersey.
And there was Brian Shaw, the smooth-shooting big guard who always seemed to have a steadying presence on the court. He went to Bishop O'Dowd before making the triangle offense sing alongside O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
While all three of those local legends influenced Lillard's game, there was another court general coming off a Finals MVP performance for the San Antonio Spurs who also caught his attention. Even though Tony Parker, hailing from France, had a completely different background, Lillard wanted his game to look the same.
"Started watching him in 2007-2008," Lillard said Monday, a day before his Portland Trail Blazers open up the conference semifinals against the guy he used to study on YouTube. "Around that time is when I really started paying serious attention to what he was doing."
These days, everybody is paying attention to what Lillard is doing, too. The second-year guard is coming off a scintillating first-round performance against the Houston Rockets when he averaged 25.5 points, 6.7 assists, 6.3 rebounds and finished off Dwight Howard & Co. with a series-clinching buzzer beater in Game 6.
Manu Ginobili admitted to breaking the speed limit driving home from the airport after the Spurs flew back from Dallas on Friday night to catch a glimpse of Lillard in action.
"I went a little faster than allowed, but just a tiny bit," Ginobili said Monday, a day after the Spurs got past the Mavericks in Game 7 to set up their bout with the Blazers. "I got to see the last shot. It was incredible, really. Quick release, a lot of air. Nothing but net. So, really good. Great shot."
Ginobili is not the only admirer Lillard has on the Spurs' side. Far from it.
"Besides the obvious talents that he has, he's got great composure," said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich. "He doesn't get up or down. He plays every play and he's a good leader. So, those are great additions to already being very talented as a player."
"He's a special player," said Danny Green. "The way he carries himself on and off the court is very impressive."
But nobody on the Spurs seems to appreciate Lillard as much as Parker, the one whom Lillard has appreciated for so long.
"Obviously he's a great player," Parker said. "He can do everything. He can shoot from the outside. He can penetrate. So we're going to do some stuff to try to contain him. You're not going to stop him."
Parker was pretty unstoppable himself against the Mavericks, scoring 32 points in the closeout game while averaging 19.9 points and 4.7 assists for the series. The 6-3 Parker shot 47.2 percent against the Mavs, but was even better inside. Nearly half of his made field goals in the series (28 of 58) came less than 5 feet from the hoop, according to NBA.com/Stats. And when he got that close, he rarely missed, converting 66.7 percent of his attempts (28 of 42) from that distance.
It is that skill set of Parker's, the ability to thrive near the rim despite all the taller guys in front of him there to protect it, that Lillard wants to replicate.
"The biggest thing I tried to take was his game in the paint," Lillard said. "With him not being the most athletic guy and going in there and finishing over those people, he's still crafty enough to finish in the paint over these huge, big guys in the paint. That's floaters and reverse layups and different finishes. I'm a little more of an athletic type of point guard where I like to challenge the bigs and try to go over the top of him. So, for me, it was just trying to adapt my game where I can do the things he can do and do the things that a more athletic point guard can do."
The first time Parker played in the playoffs as a 19-year-old, it was against Payton's Seattle SuperSonics. He got the best of the 33-year-old Payton at the time, averaging 17.2 points on 50 percent shooting, 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists to Payton's 22.2 points on 42.5 percent shooting, 8.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists as the Spurs won in five games.
Now the 31-year-old Parker recognizes what the 23-year-old Lillard will be trying to accomplish against him.
"I know Damian, he watched a lot of tapes of me when he was growing up," Parker said. "That's what I heard. I know he's going to be very motivated to play against me like I was when I played against Gary Payton. Gary Payton was one of my favorite players growing up so I was very motivated when I played against him in my first playoffs. So, I know that feeling and I'll have to match that energy."
"I feel like he's in the top five best point guards in the NBA," Parker said of Lillard. "Definitely one of the best."
Lillard was just as effusive in his praise of Parker.
"TP is a perennial All-Star," Lillard said. "He's a great player. He's crafty, fast. He can finish in the paint. Great midrange jumper. I think how effective he is off screens and in transition makes him really tough. Having shooters around him, that doesn't make it any easier. He's a great player."
However, as it says in the old NBA postseason marketing campaign, "There can only be one," that was running back when Lillard first started watching Parker way back when, one of the point guards is going to be watching the other play in the Western Conference finals from home after being knocked out.
"It's kind of funny that I'm playing against him in a playoff series," said Lillard. "I got all the respect in the world for him and what he's been able to accomplish in San Antonio. It's going to be an exciting matchup."
Parker echoed much of the same.
"He's going to be ready to go and he's not afraid of anything," Parker said. "For his age and only in his second year, he looks like a veteran. A little bit like me when I first came in at 19, 20. I was not scared of anything. I loved the big games and big challenges and I'm sure he's the same way."
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