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Damian Lillard Is Not Wasting His Time

The Portland star has never been a larger-than-life figure in the mainstream NBA narrative, but amid the oddity of the bubble, he’s unlocked a new level of his signature disruption

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What does ascension look like? Friends, it looks like a little bit like this:

And also a good deal like this:

And a not insignificant amount like this:

And also really quite a lot like this:

Like, I don’t know how to help you if this is what’s bearing down on you at the moment. The absolutely rude run Damian Lillard has been on inside the NBA’s Disney World biodome—a delirious string of nine games in which he’s averaged 37.2 points, hauled the eighth-seeded Blazers into the playoffs, torched the top-seeded Lakers for 34 points in an upset Game 1 win, hit an absurd string of deep shots with the statistically insignificant but emotionally essential quality of making all the traffic lights in your brain explode at the same time, and arguably broken his own record for GIF-worthy reaction shots per game—is what it looks like when a very, very good player plugs into the seventh dimension. I mean, he was just so good already. Now he’s something more.

This has been—and I don’t want to exaggerate here—perhaps the coolest thing any of us has ever seen or ever will see. It’s not that Dame was some under-the-radar journeyman coming into the bubble. He averaged 34 points a game in January. He’s an All-Star. He’s carrying a well-known back catalog of audacious hits. Waving the Thunder out of the playoffs? I’m a Thunder fan, and even I realize that was cool as hell.

Still, in a league that banks so heavily on its biggest stars, Dame’s career has always felt a little bit mutinous. He’s never been anyone’s basketball savior; he’s not someone who gets talked about in the same way as LeBron or KD or Steph or even Zion, who has played 24 games in his pro career. The career arcs of NBA superstars often seem a little preordained, if not quite scripted: We all thought this would probably happen, league media heavily promoted the possibility that it would happen, it happened, the star thanked God for helping him make it happen, rinse and repeat.

With Dame, though? Nothing has ever felt preordained. His entire career has been conducted in the spirit of crashing other people’s parties, and the success of his insubordination, cutting so strongly against the basic narrative template of the NBA, makes him beloved. He seems more real than the league’s other top players, because he’s not occupying some slot in a pantheon handed to him by ESPN and fate; he has to make you notice him. He’s not larger than life. He’s legendary because he’s life-sized.

Or at least he was life-sized, before the bubble. Now he’s belting 30-foot 3s over the entire Lakers defense, and I’m not sure what he is. Still, if you’ve ever rolled your eyes listening to LeBron talk about himself as if he were a kind of publicly endowed trust—the Ford Foundation, only harder to guard in the paint—you’ll thrill to Dame’s direct, insolent, no-compromises approach to being himself.

Here’s LeBron, from inside the COVID bubble, on the time he saved Dame’s teammate Carmelo Anthony during a snorkeling incident in the Bahamas:

And through the grace of God and through strength and not being afraid of the water, I was able to help him back to the boat.

And here’s Dame, also from inside the COVID bubble, immediately after pouring 61 on the Mavericks in a 134-131 win that put the Blazers in eighth place:

I ain’t coming here to waste my time.

See what I mean? There’s nothing wrong with what LeBron said, at all; it’s just that “through the grace of God and through strength and not being afraid of the water” is how you talk if you’ve been starring in a 100-foot-high Nike billboard since you were a teenager, yet are also media-savvy enough to know that you have to inject some humility into the story. “I ain’t coming here to waste my time” is how you talk if you are not here to waste your time.

From the sound of it, LeBron did something genuinely heroic—he saved Melo’s life! That is a huge deal!—and I’ve thought about that several times since I read about it. Scoring 61 points in an important basketball game is a lesser form of heroism in every way, but I have also thought about Dame saying “I ain’t coming here to waste my time” approximately once every hour since August 11, always with a little hitch of joy.

Here’s a take I sincerely believe in: Not nearly enough has been made of the sheer strangeness of the NBA quarantine bubble. Even in the year that spawned Fight Island, it’s one of the most bizarre phenomena in the modern history of sports, but so much of the coverage has focused on logistics and scene-setting that some of the pure WTF of it has been muted. Yet the WTF of it is galactic. The idea of taking an entire professional league and vacuum-sealing it, on practically no notice, into its own closed world is strange enough; the fact that the closed world is Literally Inside Disney World moves it into dream-so-weird-you-have-to-tell-someone territory. As in, “You know what I dreamed last night? Every NBA star moved into Space Mountain and they played the rest of the season in Mickey Mouse’s home gym and there were people at Disney World but they couldn’t interact.” “Did you have goat cheese before bed last night?” “Yes.”

It was hard, pre-bubble, to predict how these circumstances would affect individual players. Some players are routine-driven and some are less so, but “Good morning! We live in a pod in Florida now!” is a disruption of context that goes well beyond not having your favorite workout snack. And that’s especially true considering that many players have experienced COVID scares involving themselves or their loved ones. Some have lost family members to the disease, including one of Lillard’s own teammates, the Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, whose grandmother died from the virus last week.

It’s a chaotic, uncertain moment in the league, just as it is outside. On the court, though, if anyone was going to unlock a new level during the total disruption of normal life, it makes sense that it would be the player most committed to disrupting the normal course of the league. Everything feels upside down? Fine; knocking things upside down is the cornerstone of Damian Lillard’s whole game. The bubble only saves him some effort.

Game 2 against the Lakers is Thursday night. There’s a great chance, of course, that LeBron and AD will course-correct, as skilled executives do. It will surprise no one if L.A. leverages its massive talent advantage and reels off an easy win to give LeBron his first playoff W as a Californian. (Though not, obviously, his first in Florida.) You could even make the case that tonight is where things get real for Dame in bubbleland. He’s clawed his way into the playoffs and wrenched a game from a vastly more heralded team. Now that team will mean a new kind of business. Can he take the Lakers’ best shot and still will Portland to victory?

Whatever happens, though, I won’t forget the last month. Partly that’s just because what Lillard has done has been so spectacular. But at a moment when everything in the world feels like it’s spinning out of order, it’s been doubly exhilarating to watch the NBA’s most human star seize control of an impossible situation and make something glorious of it. In some small way, it makes me feel better, feel braver, to see Dame standing up to the larger-than-life forces arrayed against him, hitting a 3 from the logo, and dancing away.