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Damian Lillard reshapes surging Blazers in his own image

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard has scored 30-plus points in eight of his last nine games. 

NEW YORK — If there’s one thing inescapable about Damian Lillard, beyond the fact he’ll turn an inch of space into “why’d he shoot that,” and “how’d he make that,” besides the fact his team, the Trail Blazers, are 18–4 in the past seven weeks and forgetting that he’s willed his way to 30-plus points in eight of his last nine games, it’s the narrative that goes along with it. Not a high-level prospect, not big enough, not an All-Star, not good enough for Team USA, not an All-Star again. It goes down to the signature sneakers on his feet tonight, black-and-white textures crafted in homage to blocking out noise, quieting critics.

Well, Lillard hears the noise. He gets asked about not being an All-Star (“that’s just wood on the fire,”) getting added to the Olympic pool, what that would mean to get picked. Lillard hears it all, and embraces it. He says he loves Madison Square Garden, from the huge stage down to onlookers with their phones out at warmups. “It’s just a big–time environment,” Lillard says. “And that’s the reason it’s my favorite place in the world to play.”

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This becomes evident rather quickly Tuesday, as Lillard pours in 10 first-quarter points. He won’t force shots, and though he takes some time to slow-roast an overmatched, 34-year-old Jose Calderon, Lillard is content to involve C.J. McCollum, the Blazers’ other long-overlooked guard in midst of a breakout season. And back to the Damian Lillard narrative—even McCollum, fully aware of the role his counterpart has played in the growth of his own career—hasn’t quite noticed exactly what’s happening.

McCollum says it wasn’t until recently, when media discourse swung to February’s conference player of the month award, that he noticed how well Lillard has been playing. “When you’re playing every day it can kind of get lost in the shuffle. You know, he scored 30 a lot of games in a row … I’m losing track.”

In the second quarter, the Knicks lose track. After McCollum has pulled his typical shift leading the rotation, Lillard checks back in with 4:25 left. It’s 42–41 Blazers, who despite a recently-improved defense are finding it tough to check a frustrated-with-losing Carmelo Anthony, who’s just re-entered. It begins as Lillard curls off a ball screen just inside the arc, all the way around the floor to take a handoff, lose Calderon and step back comfortably from the right baseline. It doesn’t take long for a guy like him to beat you, and the highlights you see tend to, well, highlight the velocity of his nightly scoring barrages.  

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“It felt good coming out of my hands,” he’ll say of that shot after the game. “The next time, I came off that pick-and-roll and hit a three. And then it was on.” Spoiler alert: on the next possession, Lillard brings the ball up along the left side, sniffs his way around an Ed Davis screen and pulls up from the wing. And then, it’s on. Anthony scores on the next possession, then Lillard takes it up the right side. The Blazers run the Rorschach action, mirroring the last play with another Davis screen on the right side, same characters, same result. The ball finds back rim and immediately drops.

Out of a we-can’t-stop-this-guy timeout by Kurt Rambis, Anthony beats Lillard for a layup, off a switch. He responds right away, curling hard to the ball, pulling again from deep, and drawing a somewhat-dubious foul on Calderon. He makes three free throws, and his assertiveness starts to feel exhausting. Lillard answers five straight Knick points, rewarding Davis off a pick and roll, then double-clutching for three from the top of the key. For those counting, he is responsible for the final 16 Trail Blazers points of the second half, in less than three minutes of clock time. Portland leads 58–50, Lillard has 24, Dame loves the Garden, and knowing Knick fans drift into cap-space fever dreams.

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The Knicks never quite recover and the Blazers go on to win 104–85. Lillard’s third quarter is mostly quiet, but he gets to 30 and gets everyone else involved. The truth about the Blazers is sometimes they need their best scorer to take a backseat. His teammates, not quite the name-brand Blazers of a year ago, can’t find those cushy looks without it, and he knows it. “When the third quarter started, I knew their defense would change, I probably wouldn’t get to the same spots, the same looks, the same angles,” Lillard says. He looked for McCollum, who finished with 21 of his 25 points in the second half. “He got rolling, it wasn’t necessary for me to force the issue.”

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Lillard is averaging north of 27 points in addition to seven assists per game, something no Blazer has ever done. By now we know what he’s about and where he’s come from. The subtler thing about the Lillard narrative is that the Trail Blazers, after the other stars packed their bags, have assumed the identity for themselves. “Usually when people get slighted, they take it individually, Lillard says. “People kind of stamped what our team would be before they gave it a chance, and I think it helps that I wasn’t the only one that had that mindset about it.”

Terry Stotts has also brought this group together, into March and far from a postseason afterthought. Coach and star credit one another. Stotts says Lillard is emerging as a natural leader, something that teammates echo and the player acknowledges. “Being the best player and taking that responsibility,” Stotts says. “I think he’s continuing to get better in that role.”

“I love him as a coach,” Lillard says of Stotts. “He’s not looking for the recognition.” And it’s not hard to see where the attitude snowballing around the playful locker room of basketball’s hottest team beyond Lillard’s native Bay Area begins. Dame talks for about 15 minutes after the game, answering all questions except for a familiar one. It’s about the All-Star Game.