SALT LAKE CITY – He didn’t quite have the numbers he produced in his three previous games against the Utah Jazz, but former Weber State star Damian Lillard did enough Monday night to show why he is a shoo-in to be this year’s NBA Rookie of the Year.
For one thing, he set an NBA rookie record for most 3-pointers made in a season, beating Stephen Curry’s record of 166 with his 3-pointer five minutes into the game.
For the night, Lillard scored 17 points and dished out five assists, slightly less than his season averages of 19.1 points per game and 6.5 for Portland in the 112-102 loss to the Jazz. That left him with averages of 22.5 points and 6.3 assists in his four games against Utah this season.
However, he was downcast after the game because his team lost its fifth straight while Utah was winning its fifth in a row.
“It’s an honor to get that (record) in my first season, but I wished I would have done it in a win,’’ Lillard said. “So it was bittersweet.’’
Lillard’s play has been the highlight of Portland’s season, which turned out better than most people expected, but came up short of the playoffs due to the recent skid.
“He’s having a rookie-of-the year kind of season," said Portland coach Terry Stotts. "He’s a high-character guy who has a strong desire to improve and lead the team. Obviously he’s going to be the point guard of our future.’’
Many rookies hit a wall around the middle of the season but not Lillard. He may have been getting stronger as the season progressed. He ranks fourth in the league in minutes played at 38.5 per game – he played 39.5 Monday – and his scoring average also climbed in the late season (21.3 ppg in March).
“Not only has he been consistent, but he’s gotten better, which is impressive because he has become more and more of a focus and a priority for other teams to guard,’’ Stotts said.
Lillard says it is more than being in good physical shape.
“It’s more of a mental thing – a lot of people wear down mentally,’’ he said. “I take a lot of pride in being strong mentally and that’s helped me through it.’’
Lillard has remained humble and amicable since becoming an NBA star. He stopped and signed every jersey and picture thrust in his face by fans as he walked off the floor after his pre-game practice an hour before the game. He even posed for pictures, holding a baby.
One Portland official was overheard to say, “He’s the best,’’ when someone asked about Lillard’s approachability.
Lillard said every time he comes to Utah, he tries to make a visit to Ogden, which he did again Monday afternoon, going to Weber State’s last practice before Tuesday’s CollegeInsider.com Tournament final against East Carolina.
“It was cool – I wanted to check them out and see what they were doing to get ready for the championship game tomorrow night,’’ he said.
Of course, Lillard won’t be able to go to the game. Or will he?
“I’m going to try to,’’ he said.
It’s possible, since the Blazers’ next game is Wednesday night in Portland against Memphis.
Lillard summed up his rookie season with nine games to go.
“It’s been fun," he said. "It was a blessing to make it to the league, period, and for our team to do a lot better than people thought we would. And I’ve had a lot better season than people thought I would. I’m just happy it has played out that way.’’