The New Orleans Pelicans held a lead as high as 15 during their Wednesday-night contest against the Portland Trail Blazers. They led by a single point with less than 30 seconds remaining, hoping to secure a second consecutive victory.
Teams in similar scenarios tend to feel fairly confident about their chances, but the rules are different against Portland. To pull out a crunch-time W against the Blazers is to emerge victorious against perhaps the league’s best late-game performer. Most have failed trying, and after Damian Lillard fought through the contact for an and-1 layup that gave his team the lead, New Orleans became the latest to come up short.
“It was really no pressure on that possession,” Lillard said after the win. “I just wanted to attack, make an aggressive move. I was able to get some space. I knew the big would be up high so I countered it. I drew contact and I just focused on the finish.”
43 points, a career-high-tying 16 assists, seven 3-pointers and the game-winning basket typically represents the absolute peak of a player’s individual abilities. For Lillard, it only moderately exceeds what he did roughly 24 hours earlier and the levels he’s had to reach throughout this season, where he scored 14 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter while knocking down four triples to put away the OKC Thunder. He also finished with 10 assists, seven rebounds, and two steals.
“I’ve been saying since day one, Dame is different,” Derrick Jones Jr. said following the win in New Orleans. “He come out of nowhere at the end of quarters, end of games, not missing. That doesn’t seem humanly possible to me.”
A lot of challenges have been thrown at Damian Lillard over the years, yet he always manages to keep the Portland Trail Blazers pushing ahead.
Portland isn’t supposed to be where it’s currently at, winners of six straight to climb to the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. The underdog standing tall is an endearing persona to take on, but it’s been one the Blazers have unfortunately grown all too comfortable with over the last few seasons because of all that has forced them to come from behind time and time again.
Long-term injuries to Jusuf Nurkic, CJ McCollum and even Zach Collins were expected to bury a now severely-depleted Blazers team this season under the weight of too many conference contemporaries.
Looking in the past, making up significant ground in the seeding games to sneak into the bubble playoffs was viewed as a longshot. Running back a team coming off an embarrassing first-round upset sweep seemed psychotic and a lengthy playoff run following the loss of their starting center was deemed unlikely.
But look at what history has shown us.
Portland isn’t just desperately clinging to one of the final playoff spots or growing content with the prospects of battling it out in the seeding round. They’d have homecourt advantage in the opening round if the playoffs began today.
The Blazers were one of the bubble’s cinderella teams by snatching the eighth seed from the Memphis Grizzlies before beating them in the seeding game. They went on the road for a Game 7 and emerged with a spot in the Western Conference Finals, the franchise’s first in nearly two decades.
It doesn’t take a genius to determine who’s been at the center of all these shattered expectations because he’s been one of the few and certainly the biggest constant through them all.
It was Lillard who rapped a bow on that memorable first-round series against OKC with 50 points and the series-clinching 37-footer before helping Portland take down Denver. He was the one who made us put some respect on his name by dragging the Blazers to the playoffs with 37.6 points a night in those eight seeding game when few would’ve blamed them for being less than enthused to give so much before meeting their inevitable demise in a first-round matchup against the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
In the final three seeding games, Lillard put up scoring totals 51, 61 and 42. The Blazers won all three must-win affairs by an average of 2.3 points to qualify for the play-in tournament.
In the 13 games since his backcourt mate went down with a fractured left foot, Lillard has upped his points (27.6 in the 13 games prior compared to 31.6 since) and assists (6.8–>8.8). His shot volume has increased yet so as his efficiency. He’s somehow doing all of this in slightly fewer minutes per game (36.2–>35.6) as the Blazers have just two losses in 10 February games.
Lillard’s entire basketball identity is rooted in turning doubters into believers, dating back to when he was the little-known top-10 pick out of little-known Weber State, only to go and win Rookie of the Year honors in a draft class that featured heralded No. 1 pick Anthony Davis.
He’s put on the cape so many times that the accompanying heroics have become second-nature, which helps explain a league-leading 5.5 scoring average in crunch-time this season on a absurd shooting line of .632/.588/.100. 15 of Portland’s games have been decided in clutch time. They’re 12-3 in such outings.
MVP consideration is a mix of individual statistical dominance, team success and a little bit of narrative to tug at the theatrical strings of voters. Even in a pool of candidates perhaps as deep as it’s ever been, which among those boxes has Lillard, the league’s third-leading scoring on a team tied for the fifth-most wins without his two running mates for most of the season, not checked to firmly place himself in the mix alongside them?
“I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I’ve played with some really great players,” Enes Kanter said of Lillard’s play. “It’s wild. He’s like a cheat code … there’s no way to guard him.”
To get Portland anywhere worth going come playoff time, Lillard will need McCollum and Nurkic and a fully healthy cast of teammates as soon as possible. There’s no competing out west without them and it. But if his basketball career has taught us anything, it’s that, regardless, Lillard will find a way to ensure no skeptic remains unscathed by his ability to overcome the doubt they always seem to have.
“I think we’ve been our best when we were the underdog, when we were up against it,” Lillard explained. “When adversity hits, that’s when we perform our best.”