Portland Trail Blazers: Remembering Damian Lillard’s underrated Game Seven in Denver

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) /
Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images) /

Damian Lillard was the jack-of-all-trades in last year’s Game 7 in Denver. The box score will never do it justice, but here’s why it would be foolish to overlook that performance.

We’re nearly a full year removed from watching the Portland Trail Blazers triumph in what was then, the biggest game they’ve been in in nearly two decades. And even to this day, that Game Seven slugfest in Denver feels like a movie — maybe a pay-per-view event of some kind.

The buildup was like that of a WrestleMania match. We had two underdogs that no one had pegged to be within a game of the Western Conference Finals when the season first tipped, and Portland — particularly their star backcourt — had a chance to  finally climb the brass ring, and reach for their breakthrough. The backs of their jerseys may have read “Lillard” and “McCollum,” but they may as well have been The Hardy Boyz of the WWF on that May afternoon.

Think about it. Think about how we remember that game: McCollum had all the big “spots,” the cold-blooded buckets that captivated the audience, the LeBron-like chasedown block — the other-sport equivalent to one of those 40-foot Jeff Hardy Swanton Bombs off a ladder, through four tables that you remember forever. Game Seven may very well forever live in infamy as the “CJ McCollum Game,” and for good reason.

But then there’s Damian Lillard — the Matt Hardy of the night —  lugging along, doing the dirty work, grabbing the belts (or rebounds, in this case). The things that helped twist Portland’s fate in that second half.

The things that seldom come to mind, some ten months later.

And soon, ten months will become ten years.

That night, Lillard’s statline read as follows: 13 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists on 3-of-17 from the field, 2-of-9 from deep, and 5-of-6 from the line.

More from Rip City Project

Society reads that box score, and, just as they’ve done with nearly every big game in which a superstar doesn’t shoot upward of 40 percent, they deem it an “under performance.” The lights were too bright, they say.

The same was said of Kobe Bryant’s Game Seven of the 2010 Finals, where his brilliance in the fourth quarter meant little in comparison to the 6-of-24 by the end. Allen Iverson received the same treatment in that epic Game Seven of the 76ers-Raptors series, when he couldn’t find his shot, but did everything else — 16 assists and the defense of his life — but much of history only remembers the field goal percentage.

Someday, history could spit out Damian Lillard in similar fashion. A decade will pass, and a fan will come along and declare: “He didn’t step up in a Game Seven.” And unless fans develop some form of hypermnesia, or go back and rewatch that battle (historically they don’t), that will become the storyline. It has become a fundamental flaw in the way we view the game. Here’s why it would be foolish to allow that to happen.

Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

I think back to a pivotal Blazers-Clippers game in March of 2015; Lillard shot 1-of-13 from the field, the third-worst shooting game of his career, his only make coming in overtime off a difficult alley-oop finish. Determined to prove his worth beyond bucket-making, Lillard went out and grabbed 18 rebounds— the most by a guard his size since Fat Lever in 1990— and had a game-high +14 plus-minus.

Players on both sides admired his play postgame, even referring to him as “the Dennis Rodman.” That makes sense. When we ask offensive juggernauts to become “more than just scorers,” this is the type of thing we envision. He deserves credit for being dirigible enough to understand that in such a magnified setting.

In that Game Seven against Denver, one of the things you notice if you watch Lillard closely is that he somewhat forces the issue. Late in that first quarter, it looks as if he’s trying to shoot himself into a rhythm for the rest of the half. But as the shots don’t fall, he attacks the glass with more vigor than at any point that season. Damian Lillard had one double-digit rebounding night during his entire All-NBA First Team campaign in 2018-19. Unsurprisingly, it came in that Game Seven, with all the marbles on the table.

On film, a lot of those rebounds were contested ones, particularly against Denver bigs. One comes to mind, where the 6-foot-3 guard wins a volleyball tapping match with former teammate Mason Plumlee.

Let’s inspect a bit further. If we were making a yearbook capsule on the 2018-19 Blazers, the “play most likely to be forgotten,” Lillard probably receives it. He taps into his inner Rod Woodson here, nearly turning his body a near 360-degree angle, before cutting off a pass, and setting himself up for a knife-to-the-heart corner three that gives the Blazers a seven-point cushion with three minutes to go.

Funny enough, if you searched for this one individual play online, it’s nowhere to be found. Two things are for certain: offensive superstars don’t get highlights for 13-point players, and players they paint as defensive liabilities don’t get credit when they do step up.

It gets lost now, but in the worst shooting game of Lillard’s postseason career, he neutralized that by ensuring he didn’t give up much.

Per NBA.com’s matchup tracking data, Lillard allowed just two field goals on eight attempts, switching among the likes of Torrey Craig, Will Barton, and even Jamal Murray or Nikola Jokic on some switches and quick pick-ups. With a swiveled head, he played passing lanes and set up teammates all night long.

The boys in blue tried their best to capture Lillard, but all night, he found ways to produce, splitting pick-and-rolls à la Dwyane Wade to help create for everyone around him. Damian Lillard didn’t score 30 that night, but he created 30 points, including 17 off of assists (for reference, he averages 19.8 points created off assists, No. 6 in the NBA).

Next. 10 former players you forgot played for the Blazers. dark

My hunch is that we won’t remember that, but as months turn into years, and years turn into decades, we absolutely should.