Excuse Phil Beckner if he rolls his eyes at Paul George’s uninformed opinion that Damian Lillard finished off the Oklahoma City Thunder with a “bad shot.”
The cold-blooded 37-foot dagger Lillard buried Tuesday night is exactly the type of shot he and his longtime trainer have worked relentlessly for months to add to his repertoire.
Immediately after the Portland Trail Blazers were swept out of the first round of the NBA playoffs last April, Lillard approached Beckner for suggestions on how to improve. The first-team All-NBA point guard felt he needed another weapon in his arsenal after the New Orleans Pelicans limited him to 35.2 percent shooting during the series.
What Beckner urged him to do was spend his offseason working to extend his shooting range until he was as comfortable shooting from 30 feet as he was from the NBA arc (22 to 23.75 feet). If Lillard could force defenders to guard him that far from the basket the way Steph Curry does, Beckner felt it could help him ascend from an elite offensive player to one of the league’s very best.
“Guys like Steph, you have to worry about guarding when they take one step over the half-court line,” Beckner said. “When you do that, it’s another weapon that makes everything else easier. It opens up everything spacing- and pick-and-roll-wise.”
Increasing his shooting range to 30-plus feet was no small feat for Lillard, but the seventh-year pro trusted Beckner implicitly. This was a man who had coached him at Weber State, had trained him every summer during his pro career and had helped him ascend from the little-known Big Sky Conference to the pinnacle of his sport.
Lillard hired Beckner to be his trainer year-round for the first time and the two men went to work. Beckner would create a 3-point arc out of tape about four feet behind the actual NBA line. Then he’d have Lillard attempt all kinds of shots from behind that arc, from catch-and-shoot threes, to step-backs, to shots off either leg.
Their shooting drills mirrored what Beckner had done with Lillard a few years earlier when their focus was elevating his release point. The difference this time was that Lillard had to keep his form consistent and tight while shooting 30 footers instead of mid-range pull-ups or typical NBA 3-pointers.
“Extending his range was the biggest thing we worked on all offseason and throughout the season,” Beckner said. “The amount he works at it is almost sickening. He’s a lunatic.”
The payoff began to show during the regular season when Lillard displayed confidence shooting as far from the basket as the edge of the mid-court logo.
Of the 47 shots Lillard attempted from 30-39 feet, he sank a respectable 34 percent, according to NBA advanced stats. Only Curry (50) and Atlanta Hawks rookie Trae Young (69) attempted more shots from that distance, both hitting 36 percent of those long-range threes.
In the first round of the playoffs, Lillard showcased an even greater knack for knocking down impossibly deep 3-pointers, hitting all five shots he tried from 30-39 feet, according to NBA advanced stats. That includes the very first shot of the series, a pull-up 35 footer that Lillard drained as a precursor for heroics to come.
“He’s been on a steady incline,” Beckner said. “I didn’t think he’d be this good at it this fast, but tell him he can’t do something and he’ll do it.”
Lillard’s long-range confidence was unmistakable with the score tied entering Portland’s final possession of regulation on Tuesday night. He had more than 10 seconds to attack the basket off the dribble or to call for a screen to create more space, yet he opted to let the clock melt away, to free himself with a side step to the right and to let it fly from 37 feet over an unsuspecting George.
Game, Trail Blazers. Fifty points for Lillard. A long flight home for the Thunder.
Some have called Lillard’s shot one of the best in recent NBA playoff history, but George was apparently unimpressed. In a comment that drew an “LOL” from Lillard on Twitter and sparked considerable debate elsewhere, George told reporters after the game, "That's a bad shot. I don't care what anybody says. That's a bad shot. But hey, he made it. That story will be told. It was a bad shot. You live with that."
If George was willing to live with that, it was only because he wasn’t in the arena on off nights during the series when Lillard worked on shots similar to that one over and over and over. And George didn’t hear Beckner tell Lillard at the end of one of those workouts, “You’re going to hit a big one of these. It’s going to come up big.”
Sometime this summer, Beckner intends to give Lillard a framed photo of the All-Star sinking an impossibly deep 3-pointer.
No, not the one that beat the Thunder at the buzzer Tuesday night. This will be a photo that one of Portland’s strength coaches snapped of Lillard burying a nearly identical shot a few nights earlier during one of his voluntary workouts inside an empty arena.
“What I want to do for him is get that framed and show him his hard work pays off,” Beckner said. “Who else is in the gym the night before the game shooting over and over? It’s going to be a grainy iPhone picture, but that picture is why he’s going to be a Hall of Famer someday.”
It’s also why a bad shot for some guys was a series clincher for Lillard.
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