- Paul George—and observers everywhere—couldn't believe their eyes when Damian Lillard shot from 37 feet to clinch a first-round series for the Blazers. Now, as everyone knows, Lillard's outside shot has no limits.
When you’re comfortable shooting from 37 feet away with the game on the line, it means you have a distinct definition of a bad shot. In fact, Paul George had this to say after defending Damian Lillard's iconic bomb: “That’s a bad shot. I don’t care what anyone says.”
Lillard lives by a different standard than most on the court, and his latest series-sealing game-winner should be the last time it comes as a shock to anybody. After his first year making All-NBA first team ended with a surprising sweep loss to the Pelicans, Lillard used his five games against Russell Westbrook and the Thunder to remind us that he is one of the coldest big-shot makers the NBA has ever seen, namely in Portland's 118-115 Game 5 win.
In his first career playoff series, Lillard sent James Harden and the Rockets home with a Game 6 buzzer-beater that Portland is still cheering about. Tuesday night, that never-ending ovation grew even louder as the continuous applause crescendoed the moment the ball left his hands and floated into history.
Lillard joins Michael Jordan as the only players in league history with multiple series-clinching buzzer beaters. There have only been six such shots all-time, and this one immediately jumped near the front of the line and became one of the most memorable. Dame waving goodbye to OKC and keeping the stoneface in the dogpile can only be matched by Jordan leaping for joy and fist-pumping the night away after crushing the dreams of Craig Ehlo and the 1988-89 Cavaliers.
But this wasn’t a free-throw line pull-up. Lillard took a side step and let it fly from the area Stephen Curry did when he rewrote the book on game-winning shots in Oklahoma City in February 2016.
And like Curry, Lillard is more than comfortable shooting from that distance over and over and over and over and over again, until he forces you to respect him that far out. He went 10-for-18 from 30 feet or farther in the first round and was 4-for-6 in the series finale. He’s posting up shop just a few steps from the logo and kicking off his shoes so you can tell how cozy he feels back there.
Lillard’s best work this series came when he took it upon himself to respond to Westbrook’s missed shots with dagger threes from as far as he could chuck them. He didn’t just stick a knife in the Thunder’s side and twist it to increase pain, he turned the blade a full 360 degrees and poured battery acid on the wound every time he could.
Similar to Curry, he’s mastered the ability to make each three-point field goal feel like three separate punches to his opponents’ egos. He turns your garbage into his gold from a distance his challengers shouldn’t dare venture out to. He silences the road arena and zaps the energy from the building, or even worse, he injects more life into the Portland crowd than a defibrillator churning out 500 Joules. And with each make, he turns thoughts of, “No, he can’t consistently make it from there. Can he?” into frustrations concerning the defense’s inability to stop him so far from the bucket.
But these aren’t just heat checks that signify it’s Dame Time again. These bombs help Lillard establish his rhythm. The first shot of this series was Lillard pulling up from Corvallis just to set the tone. It was only right he went a little farther out and ended the series by launching one from Eugene.
The grand opening and grand closing was business as usual for Lillard. The last shot of his first series. The first and last shots of his most recent matchup. An attempt in the second quarter as the shot clock expires. A toss from just inside half court to start the third quarter. They’re all the same to Lillard at this point.
Whether it’s the Nuggets or the Spurs in the next round, Lillard is sure to stretch the defense out until it hurts. If you sag off him even when you think he’s too far beyond the arc, he’ll pull it without hesitation. And even if you stay in his mitt for all 94 feet, he’s still liable to put 50 on your head.
If you can slow him down out of the pick-and-roll, it might create tangible hope that he won’t spend the fourth quarter pointing to his wrist. But that means opposing bigs will need to challenge him aggressively to get the ball out of his hands before he’s ready and impede his shot attempts.
A shooting slump from Lillard won’t last long, but if Denver or San Antonio could force turnovers and prevent his eventual onslaught of triples until the second half, there’s a chance he won’t single-handedly take over and send Portland to the conference finals. However, as shown against the Thunder, Dame is meticulous enough to pick his spots at the right moment and he will find ways outside of scoring to put his mark on the contest.
So what do you do when the best player on the court can and will shoot from anywhere at any time and his field goals do more damage than the scoreboard indicates? Hope he misses on the looks he likes and pray that the Thunder series was more about revenge for some bold trash talk and not a sign of what the future holds for the 28-year-old superstar.
He’s got stones like MJ and range like Wardell. That’s not to say he’ll never attempt a bad shot, but it's hard to imagine an attempt being beyond his reach when it matters most.