If Damian Lillard doesn’t want to look at Torrey Craig’s crooked headband-wearing mug ever again, there’s not a soul across the NBA who could blame the guy. Not after what he went through Sunday.
The screens didn’t work.
Being quick off the dribble didn’t work.
It wasn’t Dame time.
Wherever Lillard turned Sunday afternoon, Craig was there to bully his every move. He plowed through picks, was never beat on penetration and constantly breathed down Lillard’s neck – quite literally – on each in-bounds play. In Portland’s 100-96 Game 7 victory at Pepsi Center, the biggest star of these Western Conference semifinals was having a horrible shooting day and he – and everyone back in Portland – should be happy he doesn’t have to see Craig until the fall.
With 3:34 remaining in the third quarter, Lillard had seven points, was 1 of 10 from the field and had missed all five 3-pointers he’d attempted as the Nuggets clung to a 63-59 edge.
Craig seems to have that disruptive effect on the NBA’s brightest stars. In a 117-103 Denver victory at San Antonio in Game 4 of the playoff’s opening round, Craig’s suffocating defense of DeMar DeRozan caused so much frustration that the Spurs’ star threw a basketball at a referee and was ejected.
He’s the Nuggets’ stopper, a former defensive MVP in the Australian NBL, but he can’t guard two players at once, nor can he play full 48 minutes. Especially when he gets hurt, and when that happened Sunday – swiping at a rebound over Lillard’s head, jamming a finger with 3:36 to go in the third and heading to the bench – Portland made its decisive run.
From Craig’s third-quarter exit to his fourth-quarter return with 7:24 to play, Denver had been outscored 27-18, fallen behind 86-81 and would never again get closer than two points.
Lillard was hesitant to sing too much praise of Craig: “I only made three shots. They had a great game plan as a group, I don’t think there’s a single player that could stop me from getting to certain spots on the floor.” Lillard said what his backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, was able to do (37 points on 17 made field goals) was the biggest factor in pushing the Trail Blazers to their first Western Conference final in 19 years.
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However, when Craig did sit those 8-plus minutes, the script flipped. Lillard secured two rebounds, had two assists and made his first 3-pointer in that window, and the Blazers shot 55 percent from the field while the Nuggets constantly rotated defensive assignments with Malik Beasley, Will Barton and Gary Harris all taking turns guarding Lillard.
When Craig returned, Portland closed out the rest of the game shooting only 36 percent.
“CJ had it going, and I think when I see (Craig) in that type of zone, I’m not going to shy away from the game, I’m still going to be involved in the game but I’m not going to force anything because what we were doing is working,” said Lillard, who finished with 13 points on 3 of 17 shooting. “He’s a great defensive player. Their game plan worked out well for them as far as me shooting the ball tonight, but I thought the game opened up a lot because of what CJ was doing.”
McCollum was on fire, but so was Craig’s defense. And when he exited stage left Sunday afternoon, so did the Nuggets’ season.
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