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EGGERS: This year, ball is in Lillard's court

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Damian Lillard, debating a call in Monday nights win over Indiana, has gained elite status, Pacers coach Frank Vogel says.After Monday night’s 106-102 victory over Indiana, Damian Lillard met the media wearing a designer T-shirt inscribed with “Billionaire” across the front.

And why not? Lillard isn’t as rich as his team’s owner, billionaire Paul Allen, but he’s in America’s highest tax bracket as point guard of one of the NBA’s elite teams.

Elite? Sounds funny to say that about a Trail Blazers club that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2000, but it’s the truth. Portland is on a short list of teams that have a chance to win a championship this season, and Lillard’s as big a reason as any.

After unanimously winning NBA rookie-of-the-year honors in 2012-13, Lillard is playing even better in helping Portland become the league’s surprise team a month into the season. The 6-3 point guard is averaging 20.6 points and 5.7 assists. He is shooting only .396 from the field but is .403 from 3-point range and ranks eighth in the NBA in free-throw percentage at .907.

“He was so darn good last year,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel says. “I don’t know if he has dramatically improved this year, but their team has improved, and he is an elite point guard. I was blown away with his efficiency, poise and shot-making ability as a rookie.”

Lillard’s defense — a liability a year ago — has improved. In Sunday’s win over the L.A. Lakers at Staples Center, he made two big plays on the Lakers’ Jodie Meeks in the deciding final moments, first deflecting a pass that turned into a steal and a Portland basket, then rising to block a Meeks shot with the game still on the line. In Monday’s win over Indiana, Lillard blocked a Paul George 3-point attempt in the closing seconds to help preserve the victory over the team with the NBA’s best record.

“The most important thing for Damian this season wasn’t necessarily going to show up in his stats,” coach Terry Stotts says. “He is being more efficient playing a couple of minutes less than last year. He has taken the challenge at the defensive end and improved there. He is doing a lot of the same things as a year ago, but has a better control, a better understanding not only of his game, but of the team game.”

I love what I hear when I ask Lillard what he feels is the most important component to a quality NBA point guard.

“Being able to make everybody else better,” he says. “Right now, there are a lot of scoring point guards in the NBA, but the best ones make their teammates better.

“I have a lot of good guys around me. Keeping them happy is one thing, but putting them in position to be their best is also my job. I’m getting better at that. That’s something you have to be able to do.”

In a 15-minute conversation, Lillard talks about working off ball with Mo Williams after Williams has entered to replace starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews. About working with Dorell Wright to set up the team’s designated 3-point shooter. About communicating with center Robin Lopez to help him become a better pick-and-roll defender. About becoming more familiar with LaMarcus Aldridge in pick-and-roll situations at the offensive end.

“I’ve seen more poise,” Aldridge says. “He’s more confident, having another year under his belt. He’s been great so far. He is playing like he wants to be the NBA’s best point guard.”

Lillard does. But he has kept a lid on personal goals as he sees the potential for this team to succeed beyond most followers’ wildest hopes in the postseason.

“I just want to be consistent,” he says. “I’ve played well so far. I’d like to shoot the ball better, but we’re winning games. I feel like I’m doing my job.

“I’d like to be an All-Star, but all the individual stuff will come easier with us winning. My main focus is to keep on winning games. With the best players, their teams win. I want that to happen here.”

I ask Lillard if he is happy in Portland. He nods affirmatively, adding that his mother, Gina, brother Houston and sister Lanae have chosen to make the City of Roses their home, too.

“It’s a great place for me,” the Oakland, Calif. native says. “It reminds me of Berkeley, with the people you see downtown and how busy it gets down there. I like how the people are behind the Trail Blazers.

“I love it here. Hopefully this is where I’ll always be. I’m not saying that just to be politically correct. I really hope so. My family likes it here. Hopefully it will be a career-long thing for me.”

That’s getting way ahead of things, but it’s a cool thing for Lillard to say.

He may never be a member of the Billionaire’s Club. But if things continue on the upward trend, he’ll be able to count his millions, and then some.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers