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Damian Lillard Demands Your Attention

The Trail Blazers guard is on a historic run—one that could shape the West’s 8-seed race and Portland’s plans at the trade deadline

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Damian Lillard isn’t going anywhere. In a way, this works against him; with no looming trade possibility, no apparent drama in Portland’s locker room, and no chance to hit free agency until 2025, Lillard is a star apart from the typical driving forces of NBA intrigue. So instead, he became a force unto himself. Even with the trade deadline just three days away, the best story—and show—in the league is whatever Lillard does next. On Friday, he took center stage during the Lakers’ first game at home since the tragic death of Kobe Bryant and scored in a way that brought needed joy to a sporting memorial. He finished the night with 48 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds. Less than 24 hours later, Lillard confounded the Jazz with another 51 points and 12 assists, teasing apart Utah’s every attempt to contain him.

It has gone this way for weeks. The unsuspecting Warriors were just trying to get reps for Jordan Poole when Lillard blasted them for 61 points, the most of any player in any game this season. Then he dropped 47 on the Mavericks and a cool 50 on the Pacers, before scaling back with a 36-point triple-double against the Rockets. This is no longer a scoring explosion. It’s a goddamn inferno. All scorched earth and singed eyebrows, which, under the circumstances, is exactly what the Trail Blazers have so desperately needed. Portland reworked its roster coming into this season only to see it unbalanced by injury—not only to Jusuf Nurkic, who has been out since March, but Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood, and Skal Labissière. At this point, the back half of the rotation is filled entirely with players slotted one or two rungs higher than intended. Flaky starters are now essential personnel. Third-stringers became backups. Two-way prospects fill spot minutes. Every such adjustment forces Lillard and CJ McCollum to carry more and more of the team’s playmaking weight, which apparently culminates in Lillard transcending the concept.

The only real point of comparison for this version of Lillard is Stephen Curry with a sense of urgency. Some of that is strictly a function of distance; Lillard has effectively taken the 37-footer that dispatched the Thunder last season—a “bad shot” in the words of Paul George—and mass-produced it for export to every NBA city he visits. Pulling up beyond 30 feet is not only viable for Lillard but legitimately dangerous. It is a terror upon the guards who are asked to check Lillard, and upon the bigs who are expected to step up to meet him at the point of the screen. The whole premise is a recipe for reaction and overreaction. If Lillard can bait his opponents into chasing ghosts out near half court, he invalidates the logic behind pretty much every defensive system out there.

Some opponents have gone as far as to defend Lillard as they have James Harden: by running a second defender his way, unprompted, in the hope that he might pass the ball off. It’s there that the comparison ends. After passing out of a double team, Harden will sometimes linger out near midcourt, pulling at least one defender entirely out of the play. The most dangerous scorer on the floor, in that instance, can exert influence from miles beyond the 3-point arc. Lillard is too much like Curry to operate in that way. Checking Lillard requires two distinct skill sets: the savvy to handle one of the highest-volume pick-and-roll players in the league; and the comprehension to track a first-class shooter away from the ball, around screen after screen. There’s less overlap than one might think. The kind of defender who could hang with Lillard on this drive—

—might be totally lost spending his possession in chase:

Even if the defender does manage to keep up, Lillard—now channeling Harden—can slam on the brakes as he hoists up a 3, baiting a foul from pursuit. You’re damned if you chase him and damned if you don’t, stranded in the hell that Lillard makes. The way he gets open is a showcase in practical speed. Lillard may not be the fastest guard in the league, but he’s among the best in going from a complete standstill to an all-out sprint. Shooting as well as he does demands that opponents take sharper angles to stay attached, which can then be turned against them. Some players just know how to move, which is to say that they understand the power they hold over the world around them. Harden finds it in stillness. Lillard takes a more kinetic approach.

Portland has fashioned its offense around the way Lillard and McCollum move in concert with each other. As is the case most every year, both Blazers guards rank in the top three in terms of distance traveled on offense. What defensive talent opponents have is split. As a coach, would you put your best lock-and-trail defender on McCollum, knowing that Lillard will likely have the ball in his hands more often? Or do you prioritize Lillard, knowing full well what he can do with even the slightest opening? Portland has its limits, as a team, but the basic proposition of its offense is enough to put opponents in a bind. All Lillard has to do is tighten it: first with range shooting and hard drives, and then by busting any overeager defenders by setting up his teammates. Forty points in, Lillard won’t hesitate to swing a pass to Gary Trent Jr. for a 3 or make the easy outlet that could lead to a score down the line without any direct credit. In turn, those teammates enable Lillard to do what needs to be done. There is an evident and mutual trust among the Blazers that allows not only for this kind of scoring run but for so many of Lillard’s high-scoring games to play out as wins.

The Jazz, the Lakers, and the Rockets—that makes three of the best teams in the conference, all beaten by Lillard and the undermanned Blazers in the past week. The Nuggets, Portland’s opponent on Tuesday, are potentially next in line. Even as Lillard hits his own impressive new highs, something about all of this feels familiar. It’s around this time every year that Portland’s season seems to take a turn; in the past two seasons, the Blazers started slowly only to win roughly 70 percent of their games after the turn of the calendar year. This iteration of the team is more limited, more injured, and starting its run a bit later—so late, in fact, that Portland isn’t yet in the playoff picture.

The trade deadline looms. It’s possible that this latest run from Lillard may have bought this Blazers team time to see things through. Because of the team’s luxury tax situation and his $27 million expiring contract, Hassan Whiteside has seemed a likely trade candidate for months. Now he’s playing some of the best basketball of his career for a team on a run—change enough, perhaps, to alter the team’s calculus. Picking up Trevor Ariza was essentially a deadline move made early, and with it the Blazers have managed to close the gap on the eighth seed. Still they remain behind both the curve of the conference and the pace of their past two seasons. More profound, however, is what those Blazer teams have in common. It’s easy to compare Lillard to Curry, by style or substance, without grappling with what that comparison actually means. This is one of the greatest shooters the game has ever seen, harnessing his power as he never has before.