The acquisition of center Robin Lopez allows LaMarcus Aldridge to finally match up against power forwards, and he has blossomed into an MVP candidate. But Aldridge was a known commodity. The Blazers needed a second headliner to emerge. Lillard, averaging 21.4 points and shooting 44.3 percent from three, is becoming the NBA's next cold-blooded closer. He hit a game-winner against the Suns in November, another against the Pistons on Dec. 15 and yet another against the Cavs two nights later. He set a franchise record with 26 fourth-quarter points in a furious comeback attempt at Sacramento. "The torch is in good hands," Kidd says. "Basketball is confidence," Payton adds. "And I've never seen a kid this young with this much confidence. You can see how it's rubbed off." Aldridge has it now. Batum has it." In situations defined by the NBA as clutch-last five minutes, neither team ahead by more than five points -- Portland is an NBA-best +51.
The NBA is full of Oakland point guards, even if they don't play. They work for the Mavericks, Jazz, Clippers and 76ers as trainers, executives, video guys. Kidd is the coach in Brooklyn. Shaw is the coach in Denver. Two of his assistants are Oakland point guards. One is Conner. "If I could have a staff of all Oakland point guards," Shaw cracks, "I probably would." Denver hosted Portland in the second game of the season, and midway through the second quarter the Blazers led by three and Lillard was scoreless. Over the next two minutes he poured in 11 points, on a step-back three at the top of the circle, a three around a screen on the right wing, a baseline layup over two defenders and a frenetic drive from the half-court line to the hoop. Denver never threatened again. Portland lost once in the following three weeks. All that Shaw could do was look down the Nuggets' bench and shake his head at what they'd -started.