Damian Lillard has been playing like an MVP

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 3: Damian Lillard
PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 3: Damian Lillard /

Anthony Davis has received a lot of attention for the stretch he’s had over the last six weeks, and rightly so. While Jrue Holiday has also stepped up since DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending injury, Davis has been the talk of the NBA with averages of 32.6 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.4 steals and 2.4 blocks in his last 14 games. The Pelicans won nine of those 14 games — including their last eight in a row — to give them the fourth-best record in the Western Conference.

The combination gives Davis a strong case to move up the MVP ladder, although he’s highly unlikely to surpass James Harden, who has been on another level this season.

To much less fanfare, Damian Lillard has been doing something similar in Portland. The Blazers haven’t lost one of their key contributors for the remainder of the season, but Lillard has been almost as dominant as Davis with averages of 29.9 points, 6.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game since Jan. 27. It’s helped the Blazers win 11 of their last 15 games, giving them a one-game lead over the Pelicans in the standings with a little over a month remaining in the regular season.

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The Blazers have won some quality games during that stretch, too. They’ve handled business against the likes of the Lakers, Clippers, Bulls, Hornets, Kings and Suns — teams either completely out of the playoff picture or on the outside looking in. They dropped games on the road to the Raptors, Celtics and Pistons, but they took down the Warriors, Timberwolves and Thunder at home. They got revenge on the Jazz as well, beating them by 19 points in Utah less than two weeks after losing to them by 19 points in Portland.

That victory against the Jazz marked the second game of what is now a seven-game winning streak for the Blazers. Lillard’s numbers during this streak? 32.6 points, 6.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game on 46.1 percent shooting from the field and 36.8 percent shooting from the perimeter.

Not all of those victories were pretty, but they count the same. A two-point win against the Suns on the second night of a back-to-back, for example, is nothing to brag about. And yet, it would’ve been a loss to second-worst team in the league for the Blazers had it not been for Lillard, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter — including the last two baskets of the game — to help erase a 15-point deficit. After the game, Lillard called it one of his “more significant performances” of the season.

A few nights later, Lillard overcame a miserable first half to help the Blazers beat the Timberwolves at the Moda Center on national television. (The Timberwolves were 1.5 games ahead of Portland in the Western Conference standings before the game and are now one behind the Blazers following their most recent loss to the Jazz).

Not only did Lillard score 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting in the second half, he hit a tough 3-pointer over Karl-Anthony Towns in the closing minutes to ice the game.

Lillard then took over down the stretch against the Lakers on March 5. Trailing once again in the fourth quarter, Lillard scored 19 points in the final seven minutes of the game to give the Blazers their seventh victory in a row. 12 of those points came over a two minute stretch in which Lillard hit four consecutive 3-pointers.

The degree of difficult on those shots was incredibly high, too.

Lillard has been making those types of shots all season long. According to NBA.com, he has scored a total of 110 points in the clutch, which is defined as the last five minutes of a five-point game. Only five players have outscored him in that department on the season, although two of those players have logged more clutch minutes. Even fewer have converted a higher percentage of their clutch shots than Lillard, who has made 49.3 percent of his attempts from the field, 38.5 percent of his attempts from the perimeter and 91.4 percent of his attempts from the free throw line under those circumstances.

That helps give Lillard two of the most important characteristics of an MVP candidate, the first being counting stats. As Brian Freeman recently pointed out, Lillard’s numbers this season are as good as — if not better — than Derrick Rose’s when he was named MVP for the 2010-11 season. With an average of 26.6 points and 6.5 assists through 57 games this season, Lillard currently ranks sixth in the league in total points scored, sixth in 3-pointers made, fifth in free throws made and ninth in assists.

The second characteristic is team success. The Blazers currently have the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference and Lillard has been the commanding reason why. Beyond the clutch performances throughout the season, the Blazers go from outscoring opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the court to being outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. The Blazers even outscore opponents when Lillard is on the floor without CJ McCollum. (The same cannot be said for when McCollum is on the court without Lillard).

Despite those numbers, Lillard isn’t projected to finish in the top five of MVP voting this season. Not only are the players ahead of him putting up slightly better numbers and/or helping their teams win slightly more games, the Western Conference is incredibly fluid right now, with only three games separating the Blazers at No. 3 from the Clippers at No. 9. As good as the Blazers have been lately, they have the fourth toughest remaining schedule amongst teams still in the playoff race. FiveThirtyEight still projects them to finish the season with the third-best record in the Western Conference, but it’s going to be difficult for them to hold onto that position.

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Not that it should take anything away from Lillard’s recent stretch. He’s been playing like an MVP for the last six weeks and he has the Blazers in position to finish the regular season with almost 50 wins. Even though it isn’t quite enough for him to actually win MVP this season, he deserves some of the same attention Davis has been getting lately.