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The Blazers Have a Ceiling, But Damian Lillard Will Try to Break Through It Anyway

Damian Lillard and the Blazers have a clear ceiling, but watching them try to defy it and not be defined by it has been about as fun as basketball gets.

This begins with two talking points that are generally annoying in sports, but they cannot be avoided when it's time to talk about Damian Lillard and the Blazers.

The first is the concept of "East Coast Bias." Almost any time West Coast fans claim their favorite team is being ignored by East Coast writers, it comes off as pointless whining. But with Lillard, somewhere in the middle of the Blazers winning streak, I became convinced that he really was a victim of coastal elites going to bed an hour too early. The way he's been dominating, the pull-up jumpers he's hitting, the games he's won in fourth quarters over the past month—this is all pretty mind-blowing. If Lillard played on the East Coast and more basketball fans were watching some of these Portland games unfold in real time, there would be magazine covers, tattoos, action figures, and Lillard would be on the side of buildings. We'd be in the middle of a full-blown revolution.

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The second talking point is "player X has been doubted at every turn," and I'm sorry, but this is true of Lillard as well. Obviously there were questions coming into the NBA from Weber State, but that's not even the issue. I'm talking about the last few years. Post-LaMarcus. The entire NBA has accepted that Damian Lillard is good, but every season, there are questions about whether he's that good, and whether the Blazers can really accomplish anything meaningful with him in charge.

The questions persist because the holes in Lillard's game are real. He's struggled on defense. His shooting is streaky. His passing is just OK. There are many nights when he looks more like Kemba Walker than Steph Curry, and from a raw tools standpoint, Kemba is probably closer to the truth. Likewise, with Dame as the centerpiece, the Blazers have always been good and fun the past few years, but they've really never looked like contenders.

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Is that last part changing? As Lillard enters the MVP conversation and the league begins to take this team seriously as a potential dark horse in the West, Tuesday night's matchup against the league-best Rockets was the best test Portland's had yet. They didn't quite pass.

Despite some heroic shooting from Al-Farouq Aminu (22 points, 6 threes) and an excellent night from Jusuf Nurkic (21 points, 11 rebounds, didn't die against the Rockets smallball lineup), Lillard and C.J. McCollum struggled to find a rhythm and finished the game shooting 28% and a combined 0–12 from three. And honestly, after 13 straight wins—including wins over the Cavs, Jazz, Clippers, Warriors (2X), Wolves, and Thunder—the Blazers guards were probably due for an off night.

In some ways, it's encouraging that the Blazers could keep it as close as they did with Lillard and McCollum struggling like that. That's certainly the glass half-full way to read it. But it's also fair to say that the Blazers are going to be outgunned in any series with Houston or Golden State, and if anything, last night may have made the matchup look closer than it really is. Like Lillard's game, the holes in Portland's roster are real—shaky consistency from Mo Harkless and Aminu on the wing, the bench counting on Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner, Nurkic highs and lows—all of these are valid reasons to be skeptical that this team can ever make the Conference Finals. We don't have to pretend those questions don't exist.

Instead, I think embracing the skepticism is probably the best way to appreciate the Blazers from here. Nobody has to pretend this is a title team. When others demand that everyone acknowledge Portland's place among the NBA elite, it rings hollow because if we're being realistic about this, we all know better. 

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Knowing better is also what's made this team great for the past month. Everyone knows that there should be a ceiling here, but watching this team defy all reasonable limits is the charm of both the Blazers and its superstar. Lillard can't keep scoring like this. McCollum shouldn't be allowed to be so obscenely crafty. Nurkic should start pouting again soon. Ed Davis can't keep doing his DeAndre Jordan impression. The defense shouldn't be this good. How is the defense still so good? Pat Connaughton is clocking 20 minutes-a-game. Napier is anchoring the bench. Turner is somehow playing every position on the floor and none of them. But it's working.

The longer they keep this going, the more irresistible it becomes. And toward the end of the Rockets game Tuesday, it was clear that Houston had more talent and a more sustainable attack. But as great as the Rockets were, it was a lot more fun watching Lillard and the Blazers try to beat them.