When Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash was drafted in June 1996, Portland Trail Blazers rookie point guard Damian Lillard was about a couple of weeks away from his sixth birthday. 17 years later, their paths would cross on the court for the third time this season—Lillard won the point guard matchup, but the Blazers fell to the Lakers 111-107 on Friday night.
After juxtaposing their statistics at the end of the game, the Nash versus Lillard matchup would be akin to a boxing match ending in a first round knockout. Lillard finished the game with 19 points and seven assists. Nash was just 2-for-11, finishing with four points and six assists. However, he admitted that his back stiffened up in the first quarter, affecting his shooting for the rest of the night.
“I tweaked my back and one of my vertebrae locked up,” said Nash. “I just needed time to try to free it up, but every time I went back in (the game), it just locked up more.”
Lillard struggled with his shot in the first quarter, going just 1-for-4 from the field. He finished with six points on 3-for-8 shooting by the end of the first half. However, he manufactured shots for his teammates with six first half assists.
“In the first half, it was just the way their defense was playing,” said Lillard. “I missed a few shots, but I was just making the right play. I was assisting the ball, guys were making shots and other guys were rolling so I didn’t think it was necessary for me to try and be too aggressive.”
Lillard’s second half efficiency wasn’t much better—he went just 6-for-18, but turned up the dial on his offensive aggression. This was particularly apparent in the 2:06 mark of the fourth quarter when he attempted a layup that was swatted away by Lakers center Dwight Howard. Lillard recovered the ball, maintained attack mode, drove the lane and scored on a body-contorting scoop shot to tie the game at 105 with two minutes left.
“In the second half, I felt like I needed to be more in attack mode so that’s what I did,” said Lillard.
In the next possession, it was the 39-year-old veteran who would get the final laugh. A dribbling Nash faced Lillard one-on-one, charged the lane, stopped on a dime and drained an 8-foot fadeaway jumper, his second of only two field goals for the night, with 1:44 remaining that put the Lakers ahead for good.
Nash looked crisp on pick and rolls early on, particularly with Howard in the first quarter. He ended the first half with five assists, but could not get his own offense kick-started once his back began ailing him.
“Steve was off tonight,” said Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He had a lot of pick and roll shots that he just missed, which is uncharacteristic of him.”
A closely contested first half saw 12 lead changes and seven ties. It was a Blazers 3-pointer in the final clock ticks of the second quarter that put Portland up by two, 55-53, at halftime.
The Blazers nursed a 2-point lead at the end of the third quarter after going up by as much as seven. The final frame was another back and forth affair, but Kobe Bryant appeared to seal the Lakers victory via two free throws with 12.9 seconds remaining and a four-point lead. That was until Blazers forward Nicolas Batum nailed what appeared to be a 3-pointer, but officials confirmed it was just a two and the Lakers hung on for the victory with two more Bryant free throws.
Bryant had a game-high 40 points on an efficient 15-of-23 from the field. Howard added 19 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks.
Nicolas Batum had 22 points, eight rebounds and three thefts for the Blazers. J.J. Hickson had 22 points on 11-of-15 from the field and 11 rebounds.
It was the third meeting between Lillard and Nash. In the first meeting on October 31 in Portland, Nash left the game early after suffering a fractured fibula that kept him on the sidelines for 24 games. Lillard had 23 points and 11 assists in a 116-106 Blazers win.
The Lakers exacted revenge with a 104-87 victory at home on December 28. Lillard was held to 4-of-17 from the field, finishing with just 11 points and four assists. Nash had only six points, but dished off 10 assists.
In his young, but blossoming career, Lillard acknowledges that he can learn much from Nash, a two-time MVP, whenever they square off. Whether it’s executing pick and rolls, identifying pass lanes or in Friday night’s case, playing through pain, Lillard sees his matchups with Nash as a fountain of information for improving his own game.
“I could learn a lot from him,” Lillard confirmed.
The incidental student will face the unsuspecting teacher one more time this season on April 10 in Portland.