PORTLAND, Ore. — The volume inside the Moda Center was enough to rattle the fillings out of your teeth.
After trailing by 15 midway through the fourth quarter of Game 5 on Tuesday night, the Blazers had staged a furious rally to climb back to within six. That’s when something magical happened. Jusuf Nurkic, who has been MIA for his team’s first-round series against the Thunder after suffering a horrific leg injury, suddenly appeared on the jumbotron, and an already raucous crowd sent the decibel levels off the charts.
His teammates would later tell reporters that he’d been watching the game on TV and couldn’t take it any longer. So he hopped in a car and made a mad dash for the arena to be alongside his teammates at their biggest moment of the season. And though he can’t take all the credit for what transpired in that stunning, surreal fourth quarter against OKC, his surprise appearance certainly added to that aura of inevitability.
What happened from that point on now belongs to the ages, the latest and most astounding chapter in the career of a player who reached the pinnacle of his powers on the biggest stage while the world looked on. With the game tied at 115-115 and the clock ticking down its final seconds, Damian Lillard assumed his final form as “Logo Lillard” and drilled a 40-footer in Paul George’s face to launch the Blazers into the second round and complete one of the greatest individual postseason performances in NBA history.
DAME OMG pic.twitter.com/tHOsPuyqNJ
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 24, 2019
It was his 10th three-pointer of the night, his 50th point overall, and the second time in five years that he’s knocked down an improbable buzzer-beater to win a playoff series on his home floor in Portland. He is the only person in NBA history to clinch a pair of playoff series at the buzzer. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it any better, yet it most certainly felt predetermined. Ask anyone inside the arena, and they’ll tell you there was no doubt whatsoever that shot was going in even before it left his hands.
But if you ask Thunder coach Billy Donovan or George, his All-Star forward who also happens to be one of the league’s best defenders, it’s a shot that they’ll live with. And now live with it they must, in perpetuity.
“The shot that Lillard made at the end of the game was near half court,” Donovan said. “You’re not gonna guard the whole entire half court. You want guys to take certain shots … I thought those guys made some really hard shots. Call it like like it is. Give them credit for doing it.”
George, who despite the end result defended Lillard admirably on that final possession, went a step further.
“That’s a bad shot,” the All-NBA wing said. “I don’t care what anybody says. That’s a bad shot. But hey, he made it. That story will be told. It was a bad shot. You live with that.”
Perhaps in a more innocent time. But not in today’s NBA, spearheaded as it is by long-range bombers like Steph Curry and now Lillard, both of whom regularly practice those types of shots in anticipation of moments just like these.
“My trainer, Phil Beckner, we was working out the other night in OKC,” Lillard said. “And he was like, ‘Just take a few deep ones off the dribble, let’s shoot a few deep ones.’ And he was like, ‘I’m telling you, you gonna hit one of these.’ He just kept saying you gonna hit one of these.”
This one, and the one against Houston five years ago, will rightfully go down as two of Lillard’s defining moments. But this season, and especially in this playoff series, Lillard has reached a new level, exorcising a few demons along the way with the type of aplomb that few players in league history could ever dream about. He is unquestionably at his peak, and he’s carried his team there with him. Now, they have a legitimate shot at the conference finals.
Yet on the wildest night of his career, Lillard’s demeanor remained as stoic and understated as ever, just as it had amid all the trash-talk and puffy-chest posturing between he and Westbrook that added an extra layer of intrigue to this series. Even in their one loss in OKC, with Westbrook doing his rock the baby routine and George thumbing his nose at one of the NBA’s unspoken rules of gentlemanly behavior and throwing down a dunk at the buzzer with the game already in hand.
Still, as he hit a series-clinching shot to quiet Westbrook and the Thunder for good, the most Lillard could muster was a little wave as they left the court.
“I was just waving goodbye to them,” Lillard said. “After Game 3, Dennis Schroder was out there pointing to his wrist, they was out there doing all these celebrations and doing all this stuff, and we kept our composure. After one win, that was what they decided to do, and we was like, okay. What we wanna do is win four games, and then when we win those four games, it’s not gonna be nothing to talk about.”
Winning those four games has been the only thing on the Blazers’ minds since last season’s humiliating defeat at the hands of the Pelicans. In order to do so, Lillard would have to become a different player. Last year, he’d allowed New Orleans to effectively neutralize him for four straight games. This time around, there was nothing on Earth that was going to stop him.
The Thunder tried to execute the same types of half-court traps that the Pelicans deployed to such devastating effect, but Lillard has become adept at reading the defense and reacting quicker and seeing the angles of attack that allow him to get into his groove. Quite simply, he is operating at his highest level. Rarely does it all come together in a signature performance like it did Tuesday night.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of [a better performance],” Stotts said. “I’ve seen 50-point games, obviously, but the way he carried the team in the first half with C.J. [McCollum] in foul trouble, the magnitude of the last shot, obviously to win a series, the fact that he’s now won two series…it was quite a performance. He certainly was special tonight.”
“This performance definitely ranks toward the top, probably at the top,” McCollum said. “Down the stretch, on the last play, I didn’t know he was gonna raise from 40, then he raised from 40, and I was like, ‘That’s a bad mother.'”
But the best reaction among his teammates, unsurprisingly, belonged to Enes Kanter, the former Thunder player, who played alongside both Westbrook and Kevin Durant, both in their prime, during his time in Oklahoma City.
“I’ve played with some amazing players,” he said. “But Dame is definitely No. 1.”
Kanter can be forgiven for taking a final parting shot at his former team, who did their best to expose his weaknesses to their advantage. And now the rest of the Westbrook detractors will train their sights on the player whose stock is plummeting toward its lowest point. Westbrook got his triple-double in Game 5, but he did it on 11-for-31 shooting, a continuation of the high-volume, low-efficiency output that has characterized his play for so long now and divided hoops pundits on the question of his efficacy.
But the night, and ultimately the series, was all about Lillard and the Blazers. They now await the winner of the Nuggets-Spurs series, and they do so with the full confidence of not only shedding all the baggage from last year’s first-round exit, but with the knowledge that their leader is on a whole other level, capable of miraculous, superhuman feats, all of which are prerequisites in a league built on the shoulders of larger-than-life figures.