You know it’s Dame Time when Shabazz Napier starts seeing things. On Monday, the West Coast crowd and the East Coast night owls watched the Blazers come back against the Lakers. Portland won 108-103, continuing the franchise’s longest win streak (seven games) since the year LeBron James came back to Cleveland. When Damian Lillard re-entered the game in the fourth quarter, he already had 20 points under his belt and L.A. was up seven. What happened next, Shabazz?
“I just saw it in his eyes,” he told reporters.
The rest of us saw it in his stroke. Lillard cashed in on four straight 3s and 15 unanswered points in a span of three minutes. He needed less time to batter the Lakers into a loss than you would need to hear any song in full off his debut album. Nineteen of Lillard’s 39 points came in the final frame.
After the game, CBS Sports’ Brad Botkin argued that Dame is underrated because he isn’t the best in certain key point guard categories. He’s right: Kyrie Irving has better handles, Russell Westbrook is a better at-rim finisher, Steph Curry giggles at Lillard’s 37 percent deep shooting. Closing is Lillard’s lane, and it has been for the past couple of seasons.
Dame takes over a game before it’s handed to him. America’s Next Top Model popularized the term “smizing” (a look that says smiling with your eyes); I’m waiting on Lillard to trademark “givyzing” (a look that says give me the damn ball … with your eyes). It’s not that he demands the last shot so much as everyone on his team, the opposing team, every coach, every usher, everyone in the building, and everyone watching on TV has accepted that it has to be his. Destiny will find him in that buzzer-beater moment, whether it’s at the elbow with a tight defender or way, way, way beyond the perimeter.
If an alien—or a college basketball fan (welcome guys, we have room)—were to watch Lillard in these moments, he or she or it would think the Blazers point guard has the highest usage rate in the country. Like, why would anyone else on the Blazers shoot the ball, ever? But Dame’s clock ticks loudest toward the end of a game, and there’s a reason the ball always finds him, just like there’s a reason he’s comfortable pulling up for a fourth straight 3-point attempt after only a couple of nonchalant dribbles. Lillard points to his wrist after every made shot, then brings it back again and again.
Since the All-Star break, he has scored the most fourth-quarter points of anyone—guard or otherwise—in the league. After the break last season, Lillard finished fourth among guards in fourth-quarter scoring; after the break the season before that, he was second; and in 2014-15, he ended up with the most total fourth-quarter points throughout the entire season.
This is the first time his late-game dexterity has mattered this much. Portland is currently the best Western Conference team outside of the big two at the top. A Blazers season that was supposed to be lost to mediocrity—like a recurring dream that you only think about as it’s happening—suddenly has expectations beyond the first round of the playoffs. Dame Time just matters more when Portland is a real competitor in the West.
For proof that Portland belongs, look no further than its Valentine’s Day win over the Warriors. Golden State was fully staffed; Portland blew a 20-point lead; Kevin Durant went off for the fifth 50-point game of his career. But Lillard, who had scored 39 points the game before, and 50 the game before that, shot and drove his way to 44 points. February was littered with Big Game Dame performances, and he averaged a franchise-record 31.4 points for the month.
Spotting the next time he’ll go off is cake. Find Portland down 12 with five minutes to go.