With one shot from 37 feet out on Tuesday, Damian Lillard ended the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season, lifted the Trail Blazers to Round 2 (finally!), opened up a new round of questions about Russell Westbrook, and created a moment that will be replayed every NBA postseason from now until eternity. Here are the biggest winners and losers in the aftermath of The Shot:
Winner: Damian Lillard
Paolo Uggetti: Every mission needs a captain, and from the moment the Blazers were embarrassingly swept by the Pelicans in last year’s playoffs, Lillard and Co. crafted a plan to not let that happen again. With a 3-1 lead over the Thunder going into Game 5, they needed only one more victory to complete their voyage to the second round, so the Blazers turned to Lillard to steer the ship like he has all season long.
Except Lillard didn’t just point the way—he manned the stern, swabbed the deck, cooked the food, and waved bye-bye. From the first minute of the game, he played like the one on the brink of elimination. He dazzled inside and out, pulling up for 3s that would rattle in and getting to the basket with a reckless abandon that was both crafty and effective. Lillard played the entire first half of Game 5, tallying 19 points in the first quarter and 34 at halftime. It didn’t matter who was defending him, Lillard found a way to work around, over, and through them like he was playing inside a force field of his own making. As the game wound down, tied with 32 seconds left, Lillard had made nine 3s in 44 and a half minutes played. Load management could wait. First, he had to complete the mission:
Blazers-Thunder was a noisy series, but Lillard, for the most part, let his game do the talking. As the final shot of the series sailed over Paul George’s outstretched arms and into the basket, instantly becoming a highlight we will watch for decades to come, the effect was that of a conductor waving his hands. The orchestra of chaos inside the Moda Center burst into song. His 50-point Game 5 performance meant he averaged 33 points a game in the series. The Thunder had no answer for him all along.
“There’s been a lot of talk, a lot of back and forth,” Lillard said postgame. “And that was the last word.” Captain’s log: game over.
Winner: Parting Shots
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Hitting a game-winning, series-deciding shot from 37 feet with 0.4 seconds left wasn’t the hardest thing Lillard had to do Tuesday. HE DOES IT ALL THE TIME. No. The hardest thing he had to do—probably will ever have to do—was nail the second shot: the reaction shot, the shot after the shot. Which he did, perfectly, because he’s clutch, regardless of what he’s shooting:
You, reader, will never know this pressure. The pressure to follow your greatest win over an enemy with a gesture that’s memorable, simple, and original. Paul Pierce knew this pressure. And he nailed it. Because he didn’t call bank. He called game. Daniel “I’m finished” Plainview knew it. Killed it. Literally. It’s not easy. It can go horrifically wrong. Imagine: You’ve finally beaten your nemesis, but now you’re blanking. The only thing you can think of in that moment, the moment that shall be known as yours for the rest of time and space and eternity, is something like, “And that’s the way the cookie crumbles!”
Did Lillard practice the wave? Did he Google “the perfect shit talk to the shit talker who’s said everything”? Did he consult great wavers before him? Maybe inspiration struck the night Westbrook rocked the baby against Lillard in Game 3. (Can’t be sure—there was so much back-and-forth between the two that we had to make a Russ-Dame Beef Tracker.) It takes one great mocky-mimicky motion to inspire another.
I want to show you something else. The shot after the shot after the shot, if you will.
THAT SHOT FOLLOWED BY THE WAVE FOLLOWED BY THIS PICTURE HOW IS ALL OF THIS REAL pic.twitter.com/2rAyb0UDHR— richie (@richiehomiequan) April 24, 2019
This is the face of a man who knows he just pulled off something few people ever would. He’d trained his entire beef with Westbrook for this. Lillard had the perfect parting shot. Oh, and also pretty cool—he clinched a playoff series with that little shot thing he did. So, more Dame reactions!
Loser: Russell Westbrook
Justin Verrier: Lillard’s cheeky wave ushered the Thunder off into another early offseason, but more specifically, it felt like the end of something for Westbrook. In the three seasons since Kevin Durant’s departure, Westbrook and the Thunder have now lost in the first round three straight times. In those 16 games, Westbrook has shot a ghastly 38.4 percent from the floor while attempting 26.5 shots a game.
Being a Westbrook stan in 2019 is like fighting with both arms tied behind your back. Which is appropriate, because that’s exactly how Westbrook looked when trying to trade blows with a player with unlimited range like Lillard. For all the derision that comes Russ’s way, there’s still a lot of value to his game—though he’s prone to stealing rebounds from teammates, he still grabs boards at an elite level for his position; he’s a creative passer when he wants to be; and his kamikaze drives create all sorts of opportunities for himself and others. But there’s only so much you can do when you bring a 2-pointer to a 3-point fight. Lillard drilled 10 shots from 3 on Tuesday; Westbrook hit 11 shots overall.
In the end, Westbrook finished Game 5 with a triple-double, his second of the series. Both were losses. Maybe he should have said his goodbyes, too, because it’s hard to imagine the 30-year-old ever getting close to the player he’s paid to be.
Winner: Jusuf Nurkic, Mascot
Chris Ryan: Before Game 5, did anyone know who or what the Blazers mascot was? They do now: He’s 7 feet tall, looks like Paul Bunyan, wears expensive black leather bomber jackets, and augurs miracles with his mere presence. Nurkic went down in March with one of the more gruesome basketball injuries you’ll ever see, but he returned to the Moda Center just in time. During the third quarter of Tuesday night’s game, the injured Blazers big man was chilling at home, but he had a feeling he had somewhere he needed to be. He said “fuck it” (literally), and made his way to the arena, claiming later, “I knew it was gonna make a difference.”
Jusuf Nurkic showed up on the bench, gave this look, and the Blazers went on a run. pic.twitter.com/bmNxLgt2AW— Dane Delgado (@danegado) April 24, 2019
When he was first spotted on the Blazers bench, Portland was down eight with a little less than three and a half minutes left in the contest. Rip City went rip shit at the sight of their fallen Bosnian behemoth. I can’t scientifically prove this, but Nurkic’s appearance at this game was basically the best thing that ever happened in CJ McCollum’s life. Ice cold for much of the game, Ceej went on to score six of Portland’s last 11 points. Was this because of Nurkic? We can’t prove that it wasn’t because of Nurkic, so we’re going with: YES.
Good news: Portland is going to the Western Conference semifinals, and it has a decent shot of advancing even beyond that. Bad news: Nurk is now the team’s mascot, lucky charm, Inception totem, and object of spiritual devotion. I don’t make the rules.
Winner: An NBA Arena With a College Gym Atmosphere
Ryan: The NBA is a superior product to college hoops, but it trails behind when it comes to roof-rattling pandemonium. Postseason tickets are expensive, playoffs series are long slogs, and real contenders have their eyes on the later-round glory. That’s why I wanted OKC-PDX to last forever. Each one of these games felt like a Tobacco Road death match, or an old Big East fist fight. The Moda Center seats about 19,000 people, compared to, say, the 24,000 of Staples, but when those 19,000 people spend the entire game in a state resembling “William Wallace just screamed in my face and now I am fighting for Scottish independence” it feels like a total cauldron.
My favorite part of Tuesday night’s bedlam was how, especially in the final minute, the crowd—the live experience of the game—overtook the televised product. Hands and heads were obstructing camera views; fan noise was drowning out announcers. And when Lillard sunk the dagger, it was almost impossible to discern player from fan.
Loser: Paul George’s Take on Lillard’s Shot
Thunder's Paul George on defending deep game-winner by Blazers' Damian Lillard: "That's a bad shot. I don't care what anybody says. That's a bad shot. But, hey, he made it. That story won't be told, that it's a bad shot. You live with that." pic.twitter.com/21ueYAHHzY— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 24, 2019
Loser: The Steven Adams Formerly Known As a Difference-Maker
Uggetti: For most of his career, the Steven Adams bandwagon has been the cool place to be. He was an underrated player caught inside the whirlpool of Westbrook’s madness, the player who did all the little things that helped the Thunder thrive. The Kiwi was a hipster darling who, slowly but surely, went mainstream. That is, until this series happened. In five games, Adams’s plus-minus has been cover-your-eyes bad—minus-39. Lillard and McCollum exposed his shortcomings by driving straight at him and around him. OKC may never forget Lillard’s game-winner, but Adams will be seeing the Blazers’ pick-and-rolls in his nightmares all summer long.
To add insult to injury, former teammate and defensive sieve Enes Kanter gave him a run for his money on both ends of the floor all series. Kanter outscored Adams in three of the five games; in Game 5, Kanter scored 20 and was a plus-15 while Adams had 10 points and was a minus-1. For at least this series, you could play Kanter, while, at times, you wouldn’t have blamed Billy Donovan for not playing Adams.