If Damian Lillard wasn’t a household name before his iconic 37-foot sidestep game-winner, he damn sure is now. Lillard has been among the league’s most elite players for 3-4 years now, but for whatever reason, he never seemed to quite get the credit he was deserved. When debates of the best point guards in the NBA were happening in the media, on ESPN, and in some random fans basement, Lillard was hardly ever acknowledged. Instead, you’d hear names such as Steph Curry, Russ Westbrook, John Wall, CP3, Kyrie Irving and Mike Conley. Rightfully so. All of those guys are tremendous players, but Lillard has been more than deserving to be named amongst them. Maybe it was because he was playing in a small market, perhaps it was because he stays out of the media, or maybe it was because no one took the Trail Blazers seriously. Well, forget about those maybe’s. The entire planet is on notice now. Dame is a bonafide star, and just the kind of star the NBA needs. It’s Dame Time!
When you assess Lillard’s game on the court, it’s hard to find a point guard on the planet who is capable of what Dame can do. Sure, Curry is the greatest shooter on the planet. Sure, De’Aaron Fox is the fastest from end to end. Sure, Westbrook is the most explosive. Sure, Kyrie has the best handle. Sure, CP3 is the smartest. Sure, Mike Conley is the best defender. But, it’s Dame who is the most well-rounded. Dame has every single aspect of basketball in his arsenal. He has the athleticism, the handle, the finishing ability, the passing, the IQ, the consistency, the poise, the jump shot, and the clutch gene. Oh, and let’s not forget about the range, arguably more range than any player in NBA history. In these playoffs alone Damian Lillard is 8-12 on shots from 30-feet, and beyond, that’s 67%! The rest of the NBA is a combined 6-38 on those same shots, and yes that includes the great Steph Curry. While Steph has demonstrated range that’s seemed impossible, it’s always been within the flow of the offense. But, a hard dribble, sidestep with a hand in your face from 37-feet?! At the buzzer?! I’m not sure there’s anyone who’s ever played the game which has that kind of range and confidence besides the one and only Damian Lillard. What’s even more impressive about that shot is the fact that it wasn’t forced. That’s not the shot Lillard was stuck with. That’s the shot Lillard chose. He crossed half-court dribbling the ball with just under 10 seconds left in the game, he had plenty of time to get anywhere he wanted on the court. But, for Dame 37-feet from the hoop with one of the world’s top-5 defenders checking him was exactly where he wanted to be.
Dame didn’t only win the series with his iconic shot; he hit the bucket to give himself 50! A 50 piece in a closeout game, that’s legendary. There have only been five buzzer-beating game-winners to win a Playoff series in NBA history and Dame has 2 of them. In 2014, Lillard hit a fadeaway three from the top of the key to defeat the Rockets in game 6. The crazy part about that play was that it wasn’t even designed to happen in that fashion, Lillard was supposed to fade to the corner and pull the defense away, but instead, he broke the play and ran to the ball, and the rest is history. Lillard’s story is anything but ordinary. A 2-star recruit out of Oakland, Dame, was overlooked by most of the major collegiate programs. He ended up at Weber State because he felt comfortable there and he trusted the people within the program. Being from Oakland trust and loyalty has been the most important factors in Lillard’s basketball lifestyle, and he’s never wavered from that. Even now has an All-NBA player and NBA All-Star he’s said over and over again that he has no intentions in leaving Portland to chase titles, and that he would rather get it done in Rip City. That he’d be completely ok with not ever getting a title as long as he stayed true to himself and did it his way. You have to respect him for that. Dame is one of the true loyal players left in the league, and for whatever reason, it all feels so genuine with him.
Dame had another All-NBA level year, finishing with 25.6ppg, 4.6rpg, & 6.9apg. As Dame has continually flown under the radar throughout his career, many forget he was the NBA rookie of the year back in 2012-2013. Dame has always been a walking bucket. If you don’t believe me, let me put this into perspective for you. Steph Curry is regarded as the best shooter ever, and one of the best scorers on the planet – rightfully so! Well, Lillard and Curry have the same career scoring average, both averaging 23.5 points per game for their careers. When it comes to shooting the 3-ball off the dribble, they are 1A & 1B in the NBA from the point guard position. Curry is slightly better moving off the ball, but I attest a lot of that to coaching and the schemes Steve Kerr is drawing up opposed to Terry Stotts. How can we critique Lillard and say he can’t be just as effective playing that way when we’ve never seen him in that role?
Lillard is the best point guard on the planet, and yes that includes Steph Curry. As I said before, Damian Lillard has zero weaknesses. While Curry is the greatest shooter the world has ever seen, he has limitations elsewhere. Curry lacks the explosion, athleticism, and quickness that some of the other elite point guards possess. Now, I’m not saying those things take away from his greatness because we all know how insanely great Steph Curry is, but those things limit him in certain circumstances. With Lillard, those same things don’t exist. If you want to take away Lillard’s jump shot, go ahead, he’ll attack the rim with ferocity and challenge whatever big man rotates to get in the way. He has elite athleticism, explosiveness, and quickness necessary to be effective in any aspect of the offense. Not to mention he has the range to pull-up from the “logo” and knock it down consistently. Hence the nickname “Logo Lillard.”
Adversity plays a factor in every player’s career. However, the beauty of it is how you respond to it. Some players never get over the hump. They never adjust their game. They never learn how to react to achieve a different result. But, Lillard is not in that conversation. The last two season Lillard saw his Trail Blazers finish the season by being swept in a best-of-seven Playoff series. Last year, the Blazers were a 3-seed and saw themselves swept by the 6th seeded New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans and Jrue Holiday completely took Lillard out of the series and forced him into playing the worst basketball of his career. They held Lillard to only 74 points in the entire series and 9-30 from beyond the arc. He finished the series shooting 35% from the field and averaged 18.5 points in the process to defeat.
Now, the results of an entire series don’t fall solely on the shoulders of one player, but when you’re the franchise player, it is your responsibility to shoulder the blame and right the ship. Lillard did exactly that. He accepted defeat, he accepted it wasn’t their time, and he moved on. How do you judge the growth a player makes after a heartbreaking defeat? You analyze how they bounce back the following year, and boy oh boy did Lillard bounce back. This season Dame shot his highest percentage from the field in his career shooting 44%. He scored the most points he’s ever scored in a season finishing with 2,067, and he became the only player in Portland Trail Blazer history to score 2,000 points and assist on 500 baskets in the same season. He was one of only two players in the entire NBA to finish with over 2,000 points and 500 assists, the other being MVP frontrunner James Harden. Pretty Elite company. Then, after folding under pressure as the 3-seed in the Playoffs last year, Lillard came out this year and made a profound statement. A statement that he was never going to succumb to the pressure as he did before, ever again. Even with all the antics and chattering done by Westbrook (which could have easily gotten under his skin), he stayed poised. He stayed focused. He stayed true to the game. And most important he stayed in the moment. So much so that he said postgame of game 5, he got the last word, and that last word was the 37-foot buzzer beater that sent Russell Westbrook home in the first round for the 3rd consecutive season. In the series, Lillard scored 165 points and made 26-54 of the 3-pointers he attempted. That’s a staggering 48% from beyond the arc for an entire series and averages out to more than 5 made 3s per game. Lillard is leading everyone in Playoff scoring averaging 33ppg. Don’t miss the show.
The most satisfying part of Lillard 37-foot iconic shot was more than one player’s individual greatness, it was more than one player rising above the pressure of the moment to deliver in the clutch, it was the validation for the organization and its willingness to stick with a plan that was set into place four years ago when the team was at a crossroads. Their then superstar LaMarcus Aldridge bounced in free-agency for a larger market team, Wesley Matthews became too expensive and had to be let go, as did Batum. The Trail Blazers were left with emerging star Damian Lillard and second-year reserve player CJ McCollum. The Blazers could have easily decided to abort the mission and revised the entire roster top to bottom. But, instead, they realized they had the captain to their ship. They had an emerging CJ McCollum who could now be inserted into the starting lineup alongside Lillard, and as the Philly coin phrase goes, they put their “trust in the process.” They trusted that Lillard could be Batman and that McCollum could be Robin. So instead, of panicking when the roster broke down, they instead brought in players who were on the same developmental arc as their two stars. Players like Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, who have been part of the supporting cast for Lillard and McCollum the entire way. They’ve been there through the downs (both of the last two Playoff sweeps), and the ups. The Portland Trail Blazers executives have stuck with their core, and you have to condone them for that because look at them now. The Blazers along with Lillard are the talk of the NBA Playoffs. The team everyone wants to watch. It’s an advantage they have over every other team, besides the Warriors – a consistent core that has been allotted the proper time to mature and grow together. When you watch the Trail Blazers play you see a team that knows exactly who they are, and precisely what they want to do. Everyone has an understanding for the other guys on the floor, and they play with a continuity that jumps off the screen. It’s beautiful to watch, and it all starts with Lillard. Lillard’s commitment to the team, the organization, and the franchise has instilled a particular mindset in every player from starter to reserves, and it shows. They play as one, and they play hard. They don’t crumble, and they don’t feed into the pressure. They’ve seen it all, and they’ve learned how to overcome adversity. Lillard is in an all-time zone, and it’s incredible to watch. These Blazers aren’t going out easy, not if Lillard has something to say about it. If you’re an opposing team, you better bring your A-game or else Lillard will be waving goodbye to you by series end, just as he did to the Thunder.