WITH 7:16 REMAINING in the third quarter of Game 4 of their opening-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Portland Trail Blazers’ season ended.
Not officially, of course. There were still 19 minutes to play and another 48 to go on Saturday, but the moment Damian Lillard’s knee buckled on a drive to the basket on Monday, it was over for Portland.
Nobody told CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony, though, as they pushed the Lakers into the closing minutes of Saturday’s Game 5 before falling 131-122. Lillard had left the bubble Wednesday for further examination.
It capped a season of immense highs and frustrating lows for the Blazers. The follow-up to their enthralling and inspiring run to the Western Conference finals last season never gained traction. Still without center Jusuf Nurkic to begin the season, forward Zach Collins underwent shoulder surgery in November. Swingman Rodney Hood tore his Achilles tendon. Their defense slipped, the intangibles drifted. It felt like a washed season for Portland, one to chalk up to bad luck and tough breaks. But Lillard does not go quietly.
His two-week run in late January saved Portland’s season — for what turned out to be the first time. The Blazers were running out of games, and the gap for the 8-seed in the NBA’s Western Conference wasn’t closing. Something drastic needed to occur.
Lillard averaged 48 points over a six-game stretch. And that was merely an appetizer for what he had in store for the bubble.
With Lillard, Portland thinks it always has a chance. It’s why the Blazers believed they could fight their way into the playoffs, and then did. It’s why they thought they could topple the West-best Los Angeles Lakers as an 8-seed.
Lillard has been Portland’s guiding light since being drafted in 2012. He has pledged himself to Portland, and on numerous occasions he has taken its franchise further than could reasonably be expected. Portland has embraced its megastar in a small market, the man who has taken the Blazers to seven consecutive postseasons to keep them nationally relevant year after year.
And even if the Blazers and Lillard never win a ring together, maybe that loyalty between player and team, city and player, is enough.
BEFORE THE NBA shut down on March 11, the Blazers were treading water. They had the easiest remaining schedule of the contenders for the 8-seed, but they weren’t healthy and weren’t playing well. They still seemed to have the inside track to the postseason, though.
That’s why when the league planned its restart format, Lillard said he wasn’t coming unless he had a chance to make the playoffs. He knew the Blazers could be tough if they were healthier, and he knew what he was capable of.
“Y’all know that I’m always optimistic and always see the best in situations like this, and it’s why I said what I said a few months ago when I said, ‘If we don’t have a chance to compete for a playoff spot, I don’t want to play,'” Lillard said on Aug. 6 after the Blazers started 3-1 in the NBA bubble in Florida. “Because I knew if we did have a chance to play for a playoff spot, it would look something like it looks right now.”
The misperception about the Blazers in the bubble, though, was that they were healthy. They didn’t have Hood. They didn’t have Trevor Ariza, who stayed out to tend to a family matter, with the full support of the team. Collins was injured in the penultimate seeding game. Lillard’s sidekick McCollum was playing through a non-displaced fracture in his back.
Despite all of that, they were 7-2 in the bubble before Lillard’s injury, and up 1-0 on the Lakers. Those contextual elements are what staffers and players lean on when evaluating this Blazers season, and those factors are rudders in steering the franchise’s next steps.
They weren’t a typical 8-seed, and they view themselves as better than their record indicated. There’s an upside to the team, and just like it didn’t overreact to being swept by the New Orleans Pelicans in the opening round two years ago, that mindset persists as it evaluates next season.
Lillard’s commitment to the Blazers is unwavering and gives ownership and the front office a rare combination: a franchise player who has no wandering eye. There have been other superstars to check Lillard’s temperature in the past, sources said, and his response is always the same: We’re the ones consistently winning; why not join me?
IN THE FIFTH game inside the bubble, Lillard stood at the free throw line with 18.6 seconds left and his team down one.
The fact he’s an 88.9% free throw shooter already tilted the chances of the Blazers taking the lead, but combined with it being within the parameters of Dame Time, the two freebies were all but guaranteed.
Lillard missed the first. Then he missed the second.
The Clippers secured the rebound and finished off Portland, dropping the Blazers to 3-2 in the bubble and back in jeopardy of not making the Western Conference play-in. The Clippers’ bench, with the starters sitting most of the fourth quarter, enjoyed the win — and Lillard’s misses.
At the buzzer, Clippers guard Patrick Beverley waved goodbye, Lillard-style, as the Blazers left the court.
“I sent [Beverley] home before,” Lillard said postgame. “Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs.”
It was a highly snackable, postable quote, and after it got shared on social media, George commented. Beverley chimed in. And Lillard, summoning his clutch capabilities, brought a hammer of a clap-back.
The next day, the Blazers held an optional shooting practice. Lillard was there. He shot 200 free throws.
He agreed to speak with media, an availability he could have easily skirted, since no one even knew he was there. Then he hung around for an hour watching the Blazers’ young players play 3-on-3. The next game? He dropped 51 on the Philadelphia 76ers, then followed it with 61 against Dallas Mavericks.
In his second straight game scoring more than 50 points, Damian Lillard racks up 61 points and eight assists as he leads the Trail Blazers to a 134-131 victory in a wild game against the Mavericks.
When Lillard finished off the Mavs, he snarled and stomped around at the buzzer, blurting out, “Put some respect on my f—ing name.” It might have seemed strange for him to say, being one of the most revered, admired and well-liked stars in the game.
“I think maybe once the season is over or maybe when my career is over,” Lillard said after the game, “I’ll look back at a lot of these moments and be proud to tell my kids and share that story like, ‘Damn, I really did that.'”
But that moment was a reminder. Maybe he was still thinking about the wrist-tapping, goodbye-waving Clippers. Whether it’s on Instagram or on the court, Lillard always finds a way to have the last word.
HAVING A STAR like Lillard brings accountability to an organization, and as long as he’s there, the Blazers are committed to not rebuilding. They are devoted to the backcourt pairing of Lillard and McCollum, retooling and reshaping the roster to complement their star duo and big man Nurkic.
Continuity is their secret sauce — same general manager, same coach, same franchise star. They’ve quietly found value players in the draft, most recently Gary Trent Jr., who blossomed in the bubble as a 3-and-D expert. They have found players they feel can flourish within the safety net of Lillard’s leadership.
It’s why they had the highest payroll in the NBA this season, why they traded for center Hassan Whiteside last summer to fill the gap in the middle while Nurkic recovered from a devastating leg injury, and why they weren’t willing to lie down and accept defeat in January to land a lottery pick. Lillard won’t have any of it.
Answer questions on the NBA playoffs and compete for $30,000 of guaranteed prizes! Make Your Picks
At 30 years old, Lillard is still in his prime, and with some flexibility in the cap sheet and a few intriguing assets in the cache, the Blazers have options to build for next season.
They have only two rotation players not under contract for next season — Anthony and Whiteside. With a full roster, they see themselves as far closer to the team that went to the Western Conference finals than the one that barely made the playoffs.
But the Western Conference might catch up even more, with several teams expected to make a leap, and there might not be a play-in to decide the final playoff spots.
For Lillard, the inevitable conversation about legacy will surface, with fingers pointed at a ringless superstar in a ring-obsessed era.
“A lot of people kind of … conform,” he said last season. “I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying don’t care about championships. That’s not my point. But what I’m saying is a lot of people give in to the pressure of, ‘I didn’t have this, I didn’t have rings.'”
Few would doubt Lillard’s desire to win. But he will do it on his own term, and if he fails, so be it. He’s building a legacy in Portland, one of almost mythical status — he will retire an NBA icon with or without an NBA championship.
Lillard has talked about Dirk Nowitzki’s winding road to a single title, one that could be considered worth the weight of three for what the Mavericks legend went through to get it. Lillard wants to bring a championship to Portland in the same manner.
Lillard has said he thinks about championships like he thinks about last shots.
“I always talk about end-of-game situations, making or missing big shots, I know I can live with the success of it and the failure of it,” he said last season. “I can live with having success in the playoffs and having a huge failure. I know I can deal with it.”
Nothing amplifies that more than the belief that the Blazers could beat the Lakers — the team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis — because they had Dame. And that was enough.
It’s the prevailing outlook of the Trail Blazers: They have Dame, and that’s enough.