The Trail Blazers’ 104-92 win in Houston marked the second time in Porter’s career he competed against Lillard. But the 12-point victory by Portland designated the first time the two combo guards played against each other since Porter took the helm as the Rockets’ full-time point guard.
In hindsight, fans who witnessed the scanty hug between Porter and Lillard may have thought the two opponents were respectfully acknowledging each other’s presence. But the admiration the two guards bestowed was the result of a relationship that began nearly four years ago inside the Trail Blazers’ practice facility.
“It is always a blessing to be on the same court with guys like that — especially people you saw in high school because you always admire them. To play against him [Damian Lillard] — and to have another chance to play against him again this year — I can learn a lot by just guarding him. He is a very high IQ player. At the end of the day — it’s Damian Lillard.” — Porter
The first time the two respective parties crossed paths took place during the Nike Hoop Summit scrimmage in 2018.
Porter — a senior at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle, WA — was a late addition to the USA Basketball Men’s U18 National camp. He was one of 33 players who competed for a chance to represent America during the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Canada.
After failing to make the ball club, Team USA invited Porter back for a practice run. It was there when Lillard sat on the sidelines in reverence of the recently committed USC prodigy. By the end of the scrimmage, Lillard left convinced that Porter was the best player on the court.
Following the scrimmage, Porter and Lillard stayed in communication over the years. Porter described Lillard as a big brother, and the two guards coincidentally spent time together in Cabo during the offseason — where they sat by the pool and chatted for hours.
After a rocky start to his NBA career that saw Porter tangle with a few transgressions during his short stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lillard has been delighted in the growth he has seen in his “lil’ bro” since he arrived in Houston.
“I’m happy for him. I met him when he was in high school, so I always liked his game — from that point on. He can do everything. And personally, he’s one of my favorite young players in the league. I’m just happy to see him getting an opportunity to just spread his wings.” — Lillard
With the exception of five personal fouls, Friday night was a chance for Porter — the mentee — to attest to Lillard — the mentor — how much his game has blossomed since their initial encounter in 2018. Porter recorded 18 points (7-14 FG, 1-4 3PT) and five rebounds in the loss, while Lillard scored a game-high 20 points (6-16 FG, 4-9 3PT) in a Trail Blazers’ win over the Rockets.
Porter’s performance against Lillard and the Trail Blazers may have been his best outing as a merit point guard, as he preferred to be hailed as Houston’s primary ball-handler. Porter dished five assists while committing one turnover against Portland — a season-best ratio thus far.
For a player who has averaged 4.5 turnovers through the first dozen games of the 2021-22 campaign, Porter’s play against Portland could be an indication that the 21-year-old floor general is starting to understand the mental aspects of the position.
“For him, it’s focusing on the things he is doing well, more so than the turnovers. He is doing some good things at the point, but it is a hard position to learn. It’s almost like a rookie quarterback in the NFL. It’s rough when you are trying to figure out how to make a group play well. It’s a hard adjustment. But he is working through it.” — Coach Stephen Silas.
Whether it’s Lillard or another veteran point guard, each time Porter steps onto an NBA court, it’s another opportunity to learn from some of the best players at his position amid competing at the highest level.
Porter will have another superior session on Sunday, when the 1-11 Rockets welcome Chris Paul and the 8-3 Phoenix Suns to Houston.
Porter had a solid game against Paul during the Rockets’ 123-111 loss to the Suns on Nov. 4. But the most recent lessons of Lillard entrenched in Porter could accommodate the Rockets in ending their 10-game losing skid against the Point God.
“In this league and in professional sports, it’s easy for people to just judge young athletes — and I think he’s been a victim of that. Obviously, [when] you make mistakes, you had better be ready to take what comes with it. He’s kind of been judged and misunderstood, but the talent level is through the roof.” — Lillard