LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The irritation and frustration grew inside Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard as each moment passed.
The missed free throws. The loss itself. The Los Angeles Clippers’ Paul George and Patrick Beverley spewing insults on the court and on Instagram. The possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
So Lillard spent the rest of his day talking with a close friend, texting with his fiancé and hanging out with teammate Carmelo Anthony. Lillard did not need those people to cheer him up. He just needed them to confirm what he thought. They offered validation on why Lillard remained both critical of himself for Portland’s loss to the Clippers on Saturday and determined to rectify it 24 hours later against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Once Portland finished with a 124-121 win over the Sixers on Sunday, Lillard posted a 51-point performance that made him the eighth player in NBA history to log at least five 50-point efforts in a season. The reason went beyond his talent. It also traced his ability to keep his slip-ups in perspective, while ensuring it would not happen again.
"I enjoy those games mentally," Lillard said. "You see people start to break down. They have lapses. You get to that point where only a few people are able to push through and sustain that level of focus. I like to take advantage because I know I’m going to be there the whole time physically and mentally."
Damian Lillard on his mindset after the Clippers’ loss leading into Sunday’s win over Philly pic.twitter.com/CEEg3Q3aRr
As a result, "Dame Time" struck when Portland most needed it. The Blazers (33-39) are a half-game behind the Memphis Grizzlies (33-38) for eighth place in the Western Conference and a half-game ahead of the San Antonio Spurs (31-38) for ninth. A play-in between the eighth and ninth seeds takes place on Saturday and Sunday, with the eighth-place team needing only one win out of the two possible matchups.
Unlike in the final minute of Portland’s loss to the Clippers, Lillard sank a pair of foul shots against Philadelphia to reduce a four-point deficit with 5:12 left. Less than a minute later, Lillard drove for a dunk that cut the deficit to three. Nearly two minutes later, Lillard put the Blazers ahead by making a 3-pointer and converting on the 4-point play after drawing a foul on Sixers guard Josh Richardson. At the 1:30 mark, Lillard drilled another trey for a six-point lead that Portland never relinquished.
Add it all up, and Lillard scored 14 of the Blazers’ final 21 points. Add it all up, and Lillard joined Wilt Chamberlain, James Harden, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rick Barry and Elgin Baylor as the only NBA players to log five 50-point efforts in a season.
"He’s just taking bad shots," Portland forward Jursif Nurkic joked in reference to George once critiquing Lillard’s shot selection that way. "But luckily for us, he’s making most of them."
Nurkic with a not so subtle jab at Paul George when summing up Damian Lillard’s scoring: “Just taking bad shots.” pic.twitter.com/NOuWhRh1qv
No wonder Lillard and Anthony walked off the floor embracing each other.
"This was expected of him to approach the game the way he approached it today," Anthony said. "That’s just a testament of how great of a player he is and how great of a person he is, but how strong his mindset is at the end of the day. So it’s an honor playing alongside him and being able to be out there in the dogfight and pulling games out like this knowing how focused and locked in he is."
Lillard, who grew up in East Oakland, Calif., recalled developing that mindset as a 14-year-old on his AAU team dubbed the "Oakland Rebels." Then, Lillard helped his team overcome a 20-point first-half deficit by hitting a game-winning shot. Soon, Lillard became addicted and needed a fix.
"Every time we came to the end of the game, I found myself with the thrill of 'Can we lose or can we win?' I love that ride," Lillard said. "I’m willing to risk it all. If we lose, I can deal with it coming up short like yesterday. When I win, I’m like, 'Let’s do it again.' It’s fun."
Lillard did not consider Saturday’s loss to the Clippers to be fun, obviously. With Portland trailing by one point with 18.7 seconds left, Lillard missed a pair of foul shots. He then missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds remaining. Portland coach Terry Stotts cautioned, "I don’t think anybody thinks any less of Dame because he missed his free throws."
"I’ll take any game with Damian Lillard at the free throw line," said Nurkic, who is mindful that Lillard has shot 88.8% from the stripe through eight NBA seasons. "He’s our best player. He’s our best free-throw shooter, probably. I live with that. If he misses the free throw and we lost, I’m comfortable with that."
Portland coach Terry Stotts on Damian Lillard’s leadership and how it affects his teammates pic.twitter.com/gh2KkUy3CE
Lillard did not feel comfortable with that. He expected to make those shots and knew it played a role in Portland squandering a win that would better its odds with making the playoffs. Lillard then became irritated that Beverley mocked him for the misses. Lillard became annoyed when George waved goodbye after he walked off the court.
So afterwards, Lillard reminded reporters that he sent Beverley and George packing early in the playoffs in previous years. He made a game-winner in a decisive Game 6 first-round win against the Houston Rockets when Beverley played there. He sank a 37-footer over George in Portland’s first-round closeout against the Thunder last year in what marked George’s final game with Oklahoma City. The barbs continued on Instagram. Beverley and George taunted Lillard that his season would end early this year. Lillard clapped back by insulting George for teaming up with Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers.
Lillard then snapped back to reality when he spoke with a close friend, who offered the following message: "You had a lot of big moments and you usually come up where it’s Dame Time or something like that. You have to expect there to be some type of balance. You have to expect there are times you have to respond to some type of adversity. You will have to come up short." Shortly later, Lillard and his fiancé were both surprised over the missed free throws because, as Lillard recalled, "I didn’t step up there and miss because I was worried; I just missed."
"I wasn’t thinking about it. I knew I had a chance to come back on the court today," Lillard said. "So I moved on from it faster than I would’ve if it wasn’t a back-to-back."
Damian Lillard notched his fifth 50-point game of the season. (Photo: Kevin C. Cox, Pool photo via USA TODAY Sports)
With the Sixers missing All-Star forward Ben Simmons (left knee) and ultimately losing All-Star center Joel Embiid only six minutes into the game (left ankle), Lillard made sure that Portland would not squander this opportunity. Lillard told himself, "I’m attacking" once the game begins. Even as both teams traded leads, he reminded himself, "This is not going to go that way again."
In fairness, Portland also gave Anthony the game ball after climbing to 15th place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list and making key defensive stops. The Blazers gushed about C.J. McCollum (16 points) and Nurkic (15), too. But it was Lillard who made key shots when Portland needed them the most.
After converting on the 4-point play that gave Portland a lead, Lillard reminded himself to "close the game out and stop messing around with our season." Unlike against the Clippers, Lillard salvaged the season.
"When the pressure is on, I think he approaches with a determination that is unparalleled," Stotts said. "I’ve seen him in the playoffs and obviously this is our playoffs so far. I don’t know how much outside influences matter. They might. But I don’t think that is what motivated him tonight."
No, what motivated Lillard was to give his team another chance to make the playoffs. Thanks to his stellar play, the Blazers still have a shot.
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