Damian Lillard did something Tuesday night I’ve never seen before. He made an opponent literally thank God in the middle of a game.
Lillard was certainly divine Tuesday, pouring in 55 points in a 147–140, double-overtime loss to the Nuggets. (Denver now leads the first-round series 3–2. Nikola Jokić scored 38 points in a classic outing of his own.) Dame put on a performance that seemingly united every NBA fan in the world while bringing the Blazers all the way back from a 22–point deficit to force the two extra periods. Lillard hit a pair of deeeeeeep threes—one to send the game to overtime, and another to send the game to double OT that had me hurling expletives at my television in utter disbelief. Perhaps I’m still coming to terms with the emotions Lillard had me feeling during his outburst, but Dame’s display of brilliance cemented to me his status no matter how this playoff run or future ones end up—he’s a winner.
It’s hard to think of players who feel as inevitable as Lillard, even in a world in which LeBron, Steph and KD exist. Sometimes Lillard enters planes of existence that make you believe it’s impossible for him to miss. There was never a second I doubted Lillard was going to hit those two game-tying threes Tuesday night, so much so that I was trying to will the Nuggets into fouling him by yelling at the screen. What’s absurd about Lillard’s explosiveness is I’m not even sure where to rank his double nickel among his accomplishments. This is the same guy who scored 112 points across two games in the bubble to drag Portland into the postseason. And, of course, he has not one but TWO walk-off, series-ending three-pointers. (I mean, he practically ended the Russell Westbrook era in Oklahoma City.)
All of this is to say I don’t know how you can watch someone like Lillard and describe him as anything short of a winner. Maybe he’s not a generational megastar. Maybe he’s not a multi-time champion. What exhibitions of brilliance like Tuesday’s show, though, is that’s almost certainly no fault of Lillard. He’s one of the few players in the league who is never questioned when it comes to clutch heroics. His reputation, major hardware or not, is unassailable. And that’s a pretty incredible mark for someone to leave on the sport even if they’ve never won a game in a conference final.
What is so special about the NBA playoffs is it calcifies a player’s standing in the league. When the stakes are the highest, what can you contribute? For a role player, simply having an impact on both ends of the floor is an accomplishment. Dame, on the other hand, is tasked with the burden of carrying his teammates when the pressure starts to crush most people. Not once has he balked at the challenge, and more often than not, he delivers.
(By the way, why Dame hasn’t been able to get over the championship hump actually makes a lot of sense. Lillard’s playoff history is almost entirely filled with him running into the wrong team at the wrong time. In seven postseason runs before this year, Dame and the Blazers lost to the eventual conference or NBA champion five times, including the 2014 Spurs, the 73-win Warriors, the KD-era Warriors twice, and the LeBron-and-AD Lakers. All of those teams will be remembered historically, and all were led by multiple Hall of Famers.)
Lillard enthusiasts may argue he would have a ring of his own if he joined a superteam. Maybe a Dame-Klay-KD core could have won a couple of chips, too. I would argue that it doesn’t matter. So what if Dame isn’t in the same category as LeBron Curry, or Durant? Not being a top 10 talent of all time shouldn’t diminish what Lillard has done in his career.
The reason to bring all this up is because there will be chatter at some point—maybe in the aftermath of this game, maybe after this series or maybe later in the summer—about whether Dame should leave Portland. If he should force management into somehow swinging deals for bigger stars or find a true championship contender of his own. If Lillard needs to win a championship to feel fulfilled, then he’s more than earned the right to make those demands.
But I think Lillard has already carved out a significant space for himself in NBA lore. He’s one of the sport’s most celebrated cold-blooded assassins. He has stretches of dominance so eye-popping you ask yourself if he could be the best player in the world even when you know that’s not true. The Blazers didn’t even win Tuesday and Lillard is the story—in spite of the presumptive MVP putting up a monster game of his own.
That’s how visceral the Dame experience is. Lillard may never reach the heights of some of his contemporaries. But he doesn’t need anything more than nights like Tuesday’s to remind everyone that no matter how far his teams may ultimately go, Damian Lillard is still a winning player.
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