About halfway through Friday’s fourth quarter in Golden State, I was planning to start my recap with this:
In the near to not so distant future, after Neil Olshey has flipped J.J. Hickson for a first round pick that ends up being worth four times his value, signed a reliable bench scorer like J.J. Redick in free agency, and drafted a couple serviceable second rounders who turn out to be either NBA-ready or develop-able, and the Blazers are playing either in or playing for the Western Conference Championship, I’d be willing to bet that somebody, maybe Nicolas Batum, maybe Damian Lillard, maybe Wesley Matthews will attribute the beginning of their run to relevancy to a Thursday night in Portland when they pulled off a miraculous comeback against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. You know what they won’t be talking about? The night after, when they got ripped to shreds by the Golden State Warriors.
Then something happened, and I had to change the angle of my recap. That something that happened was Damian Lillard. We’ve come to expect greatness from Dame through 36 games, but I’m not sure anybody expected to see what we saw Friday. Yes, Portland ended up on the wrong end of this one (losing 103-97), but in the process of getting to that final score, Blazer fans got to see their budding superstar absolutely take a game over.
We’ve seen Damian excel in various situations. His step-back dagger three against the Knicks at MSG was huge, his all-around performance on TNT against the Spurs put him on the map, his game-winner against Anthony Davis and the Hornets announced his dominance over the other rookies in his class. None of that stacks up will what he did Friday.
Starting at the 4:16 mark of the third quarter, with his team down 20 and looking thoroughly defeated, Dame hit an 18-footer. He made his next nine field goal attempts. His 10th straight came on a driving, twisting lay-up cutting Golden State’s lead to seven. By then, Dame had hit shots from 26 feet, 27 feet, and 29 feet, and Mark Jackson was sending every guy he had to double Lillard and get the ball out of his hands. He had willed Portland back into this game. If Luke Babbitt or Wesley Matthews could have knocked down a three, or if the Blazers could have corralled one or two more defensive rebounds, we’d be celebrating yet another close win.
As it stands, Portland started slowly, and a strong Golden State team didn’t let them get away with it. And because of that, Damian’s best game as a pro comes in a loss.
There’s a silver lining buried in Friday’s loss, not buried even, it’s right near the top. And it’s not just one silver lining, it’s a couple silver linings plural.
Here’s the first one: Friday, the Blazers proved they could play with one of the better teams in the league, on that team’s home court, when every single one of their main guys was absolutely dog tired. Yes Portland has now won in Madison Square Garden and at the FedEx Forum, two of the toughest places to win games on the road in the NBA, so in a sense they should have already learned that they can play with good teams in hostile environments, but after getting run ragged against the best team in the NBA they can be forgiven for taking the night off. That they showed up (albeit after not showing up for three quarters of the game) and were able to compete when they must have been exhausted speaks volumes to the character of this team.
Which leads very nicely to the second of my silver linings. Losing on Friday in a close game should show these guys that they can’t just get close and then expect their opponent to let them win. I’m still not fully on board with the Blazers making the Playoffs this season, I think with Minnesota and the LA Lakers in various stages of falling apart for various reasons and Utah probably in sell-off mode at the trade deadline it’s mighty likely Portland secures the number eight seed but I’m protecting myself emotionally, but if the core of this group can stay together and Olshey can add some good pieces the Blazers will compete for a spot next season and will be in the hunt for seasons to come. Getting to the point where they get leads and maintain leads instead of trying like hell to make a comeback, is an important step in making the dream of the Playoffs and consistent contention a reality. Losing Friday keeps the Blazers from getting complacent and banking on the miracle comeback.
And of course, that leads me to my final and most obvious silver lining. Damian Lillard has already proved he can lead the Blazers. Friday, Damian Lillard showed that he can put his team on his back. Maybe he already knew he could do that, and maybe he didn’t. But after tonight’s game there should be absolutely no doubt about it. Why is it important for Dame to put his team on his shoulders? Because there have been a few times this season when we’ve seen Lillard differ too much. I asked Damian after a game not too long ago if he ever thought about shooting the ball more often. He said he takes what the game gives him and plays within himself. That’s a fantastic attitude, and the kind of play that makes Dame such a special player. But there are times when he needs to be assertive.
There are times in a player’s career when a big play or a big game changes who they are or what they are capable of becoming. In 2008-09, Brandon Roy’s game winning heave against the Houston Rockets was that kind of play. Brandon had always been clutch, but he’d never been clutch like that before. Brandon was an assassin in late game situations after that.
Lillard’s 37 points on 25 field goal attempts is an example of the kind of offense he’s capable of. His explosion in the third and fourth quarters is an example of why calling his own number should be one of Portland’s best options. If a star-making offensive night turns into a run of high efficiency scoring nights, losing to the Warriors was totally worth it.
Portland got over a big win on Thursday to put up a gallant losing effort on Friday. Now we’ll have to see if they get over a frustrating loss by Sunday. That Oklahoma City Thunder is going to be yet another formidable opponent.
The Blazers take on OKC at the Rose Garden, and will attempt to stretch their home winning streak to double digits.
Just a couple quick things:
- Standings Watch: Portland’s now 20-16 and in sole possession of the eighth seed in the West, half a game behind the Rockets for seven and a full two games up on the Jazz for out of the race.
Also here’s a great video of Thursday’s big win: