Damian Lillard did it again.
On Tuesday night when the Portland Trail Blazers needed him most, Lillard came through. Things were tight between Portland the Oklahoma City Thunder late in Game 5 at Moda Center. Both Russell Westbrook and Paul George played with five fouls in the fourth quarter, and after an explosive first half where Lillard scored 34 points, things had slowed for Portland.
In the second half, Westbrook played the part of the bully against CJ McCollum, and George was fantastic, eventually scoring 36 points with nine rebounds and three assists.
But things seemed to turn around when Jusuf Nurkic, out with a broken leg, returned to the Blazers bench with three-and-a-half minutes left and Portland down by eight. Nurkic said he left his house with a few minutes to go in the third quarter, anticipating his team could use his good spirits. Indeed, Nurkic’s presence seemed to fuel Portland. When Nurkic showed up, the home team immediately went on an 8-0 run.
Then, Lillard did what he does best.
After hitting the two-for-one shot with 32 seconds left, Lillard found himself with the ball, the game tied, and the shot clock off. As time ticked down and with the game on the line, Lillard hit the biggest shot of the night, right as time expired.
It was the shot that won the series.
You wouldn’t be mistaken if you equated Tuesday night’s big shot to the one Lillard hit in 2013 to beat the Houston Rockets and send Portland into the second round of the playoffs. In fact, I was at that game and I can tell you it was a defining moment for the franchise over the past half-decade.
But this was so much more.
Lillard’s shot to beat the Thunder solidified several things, both about the team and about the star guard himself. The Blazers have been a squad that have relied on its bench and supporting cast all season long, even more so with Nurkic out with a broken leg. But when the Thunder played perhaps one of their best games of the postseason, it was Lillard’s 50-point performance that moved them forward.
Portland is a team’s team, but in the end, it was their star that they needed.
There’s no doubt that Portland and Lillard have had it their fair share of doubters over the past several years. The idea that they could — or should — have a team built on the backs of Lillard and McCollum has raised the eyebrows of many, including myself. But externally, and particularly after their playoff sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans last season, it appeared most were ready to write off this team altogether.
But this playoff series, and this team, is different. They’ve been different all season long, right down to the rotations and flexibility that head coach Terry Stotts has enabled this season. Stotts has gone deeper into his bench, and altered his Flow offense in a way that is helped Portland stay fresh after years of running the same old song and dance.
Guys like Jake Layman, Seth Curry, Zach Collins, and Enes Kanter have all stepped up over the course of the season to be able to contribute to a squad that is needed more than just Lillard and McCollum.
To that end, Portland rose again and again to the challenge. Despite some of their losses, the Thunder gave numerous gut punches to the Blazers that would have seen previous iterations of this team fold. But Portland has been stronger, both as a unit and as Lillard has solidified himself as a more complete two-way player.
The idea that Lillard came back stronger and as more of a leader, ready for adversity, is not a supposition. At this point, it’s fact. You can see how the rest of the team has banded behind him in support of his path forward. Hell, Kanter told reporters after the game on Tuesday that he separated his shoulder and had to have an injection at halftime. That’s how bad these Blazers wanted to win, and how much they wanted to push not just for themselves, but for Lillard.
Thanks to Lillard’s shot (and McCollum’s jumpers, and Maurice Harkless’ free throws) Portland beat the Thunder, 118-115. They advance to the second round, and Rip City will be buzzing all week long. They deserve it, and they’ll be real contenders to challenge for a Western Conference Finals berth.
But where does that leave us when we think about Lillard, and these Blazers? If his famous “0.9” shot from 2014 was the thing that put him on the map, Tuesday’s 37-foot step-back jumper over George was the thing that made Lillard a legend.
The impossibility of that jumper — and the sheer gal to take it — is what makes Damian Lillard who he is.
The greatest Blazer of all-time.