Damian Lillard is not a numbers guy.
So, being fifth in the NBA in scoring (25.4) and seventh in assists (7.1), dropping 51 points on the defending champion Warriors, and the fact that he and C.J. McCollum are the third-highest-scoring duo in the league at 46.2 points per game mean little to him.
Instead, Lillard the rap artist (aka "Dame D.O.L.L.A.") reps and respects letters. Letters that form words that manifest into lyrics, that change perspectives, move minds. Letters that when put together create this: "Sick of these suckers all in my bubble though/Critiquing me on stuff I had to struggle for/This dream has been a long time coming/and my clock is Forrest Gump/I've spent a long time running."
In this Q&A, Lillard puts his team, his game, and his music into words.
I. The Leader
Scoop Jackson: It's taken the Blazers a while to get here, but is this recent run about you all finally finding yourselves as a team after all of the changes made in the offseason?
Damian Lillard: I think it just took a lot of growth. I mean, earlier in the season, we had a lot of growing pains, blew some late leads. Some games we just weren't in position to win them because at the time we just weren't good enough yet.
And I think because of those times and those experiences, now we're able to close out games, we are able to jump on teams because we understand the things that we do when we are at our best now.
Lillard: It was tough starting out just because I hadn't been in position of having so much responsibility leadership-wise and physically, just having to put out more. You know when the game gets going in one direction, it's up to you to change it. I mean, the way the team goes is based on how you go about things. It was new to me. But I stuck with it.
You know, at times it was tough, it was hard. But like I always do, I accepted the challenge. You know, I found ways that I could help myself, help my teammates. You know they've continued to get better and they've also made it easier. So many guys stepping up. So many guys taking pressure off of me. C.J., AC (Allen Crabbe), just contributing consistently, it's just made it easier. And I've gotten better with it. Understanding things better. Feeling things better. And I think we've become a better team because of it.
Scoop: Was taking on a leadership role at this level what you expected?
Lillard: For me just being myself is being a good enough leader. I think it's not so much what you say goes or you always having something to say. Sometimes it's allowing somebody else to hold you accountable, saying something to you, Coach calling you out in film (session) and you taking the criticism without being salty or having an attitude about it.
You know, sometimes it might mean me having to say something to someone else. Or in the game me taking a charge or in practice when something is not good enough me speaking up and saying it's not good enough. Things like that, that's what's been the main difference and what I've had to do differently. Stepping up in those situations.
Scoop: Real talk: Are you all going through a good stretch right now or are the Blazers really as good as these last two months have shown (Portland went 18-7 combined in January and February)?
Lillard: I mean, I think if we were 15-35 and we had a couple of good games, then we could say this is just a stretch. But I think it's been over like 20-something games, like 22 games where we've kind of just turned the corner. So it's a greater sample size which lets you know that this is who you are. If it were seven out of 10, then you could say, "OK, they had a good 10-game stretch." But when you do it over 25-30 games, that's who you are. I mean, we're in the playoffs now. We've beaten a lot of good teams, so I think this is who we are.
II. The Player
Scoop: This irritates me, so I'm going to ask if it irritates you as well: People talk about this "chip on your shoulder." I don't think there is a chip on your shoulder. To me this is just how you ball, how you play. Why does everyone have to place this "anger" on your game?
Lillard: I take stuff and I put wood on the fire. That's my thing. Now, I got a chip on my shoulder about a lot of things, but the thing I do disagree with is the fact that every time there's a slight -- like if I don't make Team USA or if I don't make the All-Star team -- I do feel some type of way about it as I should, as a competitor.
But the thing that is irritating -- going to what you said -- is the "Oh, he didn't make the All-Star team so he's doing this" and the "This didn't happen so he's doing that." When really since I stepped foot in the league I believe I've been consistent from the jump. And the fact that some people go out of their way to say those things, it kinda takes away from what I do and it shows that they don't really realize what I've really been doing all along. I've been averaging 20 or more since I came in the league, so ...
Scoop: You play attack-mode type of ball from the point-guard position. Do you see the shift in the game and style of team play affecting the way you play at all?
Lillard: Naw. Just because the way I play, I play the right way. You know, I'm not the kind of player that is going to dribble the air out of the ball, I'm not going to not make the right play to a guy that's open, I'm not going to not execute our offense.
You know, if we get out in transition and it looks like somebody is backpedaling and I can get an advantage, I'm gonna attack them. If we come off of a pick-and-roll and one of their bigs is off-balance, I'm going to attack them. If I got a shot, I'm going to raise up and shoot it, but if the guy is up and I don't have a shot at the rim and I see our big diving, I'm gonna hit the big. If it's the fourth quarter and I only have 10 points and our big is open, I'ma hit our big. I'ma always make the right play, I'm always going to play the game unselfishly, but that's what I do. I come out there and I attack. I go after people. And that's the way it should be.
Scoop: You and C.J. are right there among the best scoring duos in the league. Is it time to put you two in the argument for best guard combo?
Lillard: The thing with C.J. and me is we don't play for anybody else's validation. That's one thing in the way I approach things -- and I know he has this, too -- is you know people compliment you and say these things, you know, that's cool. They considered you one of the best and all that stuff ... none of that is going to win you a championship. Calling us the best backcourt is not going to hand us a ring for it, you know what I mean?
So at the end of the day, people can add their opinion and say who is the best at whatever, but the best player in the league doesn't win the championship every year. The best player in the league doesn't win MVP every year.
III. The Rapper
Scoop: You dropped "Bigger Than Us" late last year. And people who know you know about your spit game. It's serious. To me, it seems like rapping comes almost more naturally to you than playing basketball.
Lillard: I mean, probably just as natural. Or close to it. Just because I've been doing it a long time.
Scoop: A lot of dudes have been doing it a long time but you've got ...
Lillard: ... I got something to say! I ain't come from the suburbs, I saw real struggle, I grew up in a real struggle (in Oakland), I grew up around craziness. I've seen things that I can tell stories and tell it how it really is and people that come from that same type of background they can listen and be like, "OK, he ain't messing (around), he's serious. He know!" So I think that, and I just know how to put them words together.
Scoop: True that. A lot of people come from the same situation but don't know how to put those words together to mean something.
Lillard: A lot of times you just have to notice it. Growing up, sometimes you get so used to something you just stop noticing things. I just never stopped noticing. You know, where people live, how they live. When I go home now the house that I could have spent the night in, where I used to be for two or three days, I go back now and it's like it's not the same comfort. And I notice that. It's a bad feeling when you see how some people live and you lived that way at some point, you know? And that's all I do, I just express the stuff that I see and express how I feel about it.
"I grew up in a real struggle, I grew up around craziness. I've seen things that I can tell stories and tell it how it really is ..." Damian Lillard
Scoop: Is it more important for you to move society through your words or through the way you play ball?
Lillard: I would never choose, but I think through my music I just try to move people through what I say just so they can hear it. Just so they can hear what I've been through, what I see, how I view things. But when I play ball, I think it's not so much what's on the court, it's more so because I'm in that position to see how I conduct myself. Be an example because there are so many kids and so many people that turn and look to us. And through that we can give them hope. Especially the kids now with social media. When they look to us, we gotta be good examples. And that's something I take pride in.
Scoop: Not saying that you aren't a true MC, because you are. But for the sake of this analogy, as an NBA player, if you were to be compared to an MC, who would that be? People say LeBron's MC equivalent is Hov (Jay-Z), people call Jamal Crawford the Jadakiss of the game because he's so underappreciated in much the same way Jada is as an MC. So I'm asking you: Who would be the best counterpart to you in the rap game?
Lillard: I think I'm like J. Cole or Common. Probably J. Cole.
Scoop: I was gonna say either Kendrick (Lamar) or Ghostface.
Lillard: I can see Kendrick too, he's similar to J. Cole. But like J. Cole people know I'm good, people know I can get it done, they know I'm at a high level but they don't appreciate it like they appreciate somebody that's more out there, that goes more out of their way for attention. In other words, do that extra stuff. Me? I'ma stick to who I am. And I think that's J. Cole. He's going to stick to who he is and he's going to put his message out there and he's going to be him. He's not going to compromise that. He's just going to be his best self at what he does. And I think that's who I am.