There will be other huge moments along the way, but no matter what happens from here, I'm not sure anything in this year’s NBA playoffs will top what Damian Lillard did in Portland Tuesday night. With Russell Westbrook and the Thunder on the brink of elimination, Lillard finished them off with 50 points, 10 threes, and a 37-foot game-winning three at the buzzer that guarantees that game will never be forgotten by anyone who watched it happen live. It was the type of late night playoff game that makes it impossible to go to bed until at least an hour after the buzzer. Which is to say, it was the type of game that makes playoff basketball great.
Lillard is the story of the playoffs so far, and to explain what makes this so enjoyable, context is important. So let's review.
First, there's everything that happened last year. The entire league watched Portland win 49 games, finish third in the West, and then get swept out of the first round by Anthony Davis and the Pelicans. At that point, everything was on the table. There were calls to fire the coach, Terry Stotts, fire the general manager, Neil Oshey, and trade one or both of the stars, Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The the Blazers had exceeded all reasonable expectations, lived their best case scenario through the regular season, and then watched it all go up in flames in the most demoralizing way imaginable.
But Lillard wouldn’t let the Blazers fall apart. He called his teammates over the summer and told them not to worry. "If we're healthy," he said, "We're good." The Blazers came back and won 53 games, role players stepped up all year long, and Portland was so reliably excellent that the team flew under the radar for most of the season. While the rest of the league descended into a haze of trade demands and bad chemistry, the Blazers formula was simple. Lillard played at an All-NBA level (again), everyone liked each other and played hard, Stotts was excellent, and they were one of the most consistent teams in the league.
In the middle of all this, there was a heated game against OKC in late-January. After several skirmishes through the first three-and-a-half quarters, it ended with OKC up 10 and Westbrook interrupting a Lillard free throw to tell him, "I've been busting that ass for years. For years!" OKC would go on to win all four regular season matchups against the Blazers. We'll come back to this.
Before the playoffs, Jusuf Nurkic got hurt—a gruesome broken leg in a meaningless game at the end of a career season—and the Blazers seemed doomed and demoralized all over again. Overnight, a potential dark horse to make the Conference Finals began to look like a potential upset victim in the first round. The team was going to be stuck relying on role players like Rodney Hood, Seth Curry, and Mo Harkless and big men like Enes Kanter, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard. All of it made Lillard's job look that much more impossible. Which brings us to this OKC series—over five games Lillard averaged 33.0 points-per-game and 6 assists on 46% shooting and 48% from three.
The Blazers sometimes seem like everyone's second favorite team, and Lillard sometimes seems like everyone's second favorite superstar, but it had been a while since either one has been at the center of any NBA conversation. This series changed that story, and after a long run of universal respect, now Lillard is revered. He entered the playoffs with the whole world expecting a war between two of the best point guards of the current generation, and he came out and annihilated his rival so badly that the war looked over after the first two games. "He's been busting my ass for years," Lillard said Tuesday, recalling that Westbrook video. "That wasn't true, for one, and this was the moment of truth. This was the perfect platform and opportunity for him to prove it and you see what happened."
If the past 10 days were about appreciating Lillard, Westbrook was the perfect foil. Lillard has gotten incrementally better every year and addressed his weaknesses in ways that Russ never could. Next to Westbrook, Lillard is a much better shooter in a league that demands it, a better decision-maker, and a better passer. Where Westbrook brings raw energy for better or worse, Lillard is always under control, answering kamikaze Westbrook attacks with calculated strikes that were even more devastating.
More than anything, Lillard is a stabilizing presence for a team that has needed exactly what he provides. I talked to Nurkic earlier this season, before his injury, and in the middle of a career year, he credited Lillard, the guy who's never going to let his big man walk away to the end of the bench. "It's hard to explain day-by-day what he means to us,” Nurkic said. “But I think the most important thing for me, and for anybody on the team. He never changes. No matter what happens to the team or to us [as individuals], he's the same person. Ain't no fake. Ain't no lies. That's what you want from anybody, but especially from your best player out there. A star who can take care of you both on the floor and off the floor. Sharing his experience, knowing what he's been through. It's amazing."
The playoffs are a showcase for the best of the NBA, and Lillard is as good as it gets. He may never win a championship, and he may not even make it to the Conference Finals this year. But his career so far is a reminder that there's more to all this than just championships. He's a god in the city of Portland. Among the Blazers, he's the teammate who will make sure that Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu stay involved, bring Nurkic to his son's birthday party, and be everything you could possibly want in a leader. And among his peers, he's cooler than almost any star the NBA has, waving at Dennis Schroeder and Paul George, making sure they know what time it is.
"That was a bad shot," George said afterward Tuesday. "I don't care what anybody says, that's a bad shot. But hey, he made it." George is going to be clowned for that quote, and maybe he should be, but let the record state that he is absolutely correct. With the game on the line, Lillard opted for a 37-foot contested pull-up. It's an absurd thing to even type. It’s also a perfect testament to the franchise player in Portland and all the confidence he has always inspired in the Blazers.
Bad shot or not, we need to be honest here. As soon that ball left Lillard's hands, the whole world thought it was going in.