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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: Damian Lillard Goes Streaking

Lillard’s scorching-hot stretch to close January kept the Blazers in the mix—and made him a legend in the process

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

He would never have acknowledged it, but if there was one player who probably needed a break from the 2019-20 NBA season, it was Damian Lillard.

This has been a tumultuous season for the Blazers, who’ve seemed to both regress and see a new player go down with an injury every few weeks. Jusuf Nurkic started the season recovering from a broken leg. Zach Collins dislocated his shoulder three games in. Rodney Hood tore his Achilles in December and was lost for the season. Even Lillard sat out six games with a right groin strain. Overall, the Blazers have the fifth-most games missed by players.

Their lack of depth forced them to dip into the free agent market and get none other than Carmelo Anthony to fill minutes. Melo did well for himself, but it wasn’t enough to keep the Blazers within the playoff field. Lillard was forced to play the role of hero and carry much of the team’s weight on his shoulders.

When the season was suspended in March, Portland was just 3.5 games out of the 8-seed in the West. This seemed like a bit of a disappointment given the team’s preseason expectations, but also an achievement considering all the setbacks. And really the only reason the Blazers found themselves there was Lillard, who went on a late-January run for the history books.

On January 20, Lillard danced around a decrepit Warriors team for 61 points. Three days later, he followed it up by delivering a 47-point performance against the Mavericks. Three days after that, he dropped 50 points on the Pacers. He closed off January with 38- and 48-point games against the Rockets and Lakers, respectively. But he still wasn’t done. February began with a matchup against Utah in which Lillard trounced the Jazz to the tune of 51 points. In the span of 12 days and six games, Lillard totaled 293 points. His numbers from the stretch are absurd: 48.8 points per game, 55 percent from the field, 57 percent from 3, 92 percent from the line. His effective field goal percentage topped 70. Even Lillard himself was in disbelief:

“I’ve never been in this type of rhythm in my life,” he said after the game against the Jazz.

It would be easy to characterize the run as an individual, high-usage achievement, but that would shortchange the fact that Lillard also coupled his scorching scoring with 10.2 assists per game (and 7.2 rebounds to boot). Lillard’s assists created an average of 25.2 points per game. Add that to the 48.8 he scored himself, and he was responsible for 74 points per game over that run.

During a season that lacked Steph Curry’s effervescence, Lillard gave us a similar jolt while acting as a Herculean figure for his team. The numbers he posted were neither empty nor dull. The most rewarding part about watching Lillard, and specifically his highlights, is trying to decipher when he will gather to shoot—because it can happen in a flash. It’s like watching LeBron or Giannis just before they drive to the rim. With Lillard, it’s the split second when he decides that there’s no need to get closer to the basket, let alone the 3-point line. “No, this pull-up shot from over 30 feet will do just fine.” Just look at this one, from his 38-point game against the Rockets:

It requires so much confidence to even take this shot that you’d be surprised only if it didn’t go in. Its sheer absurdity turns it from foolish for most players to a reliable part of Lillard’s repertoire. There’s a natural pushback to the way the 3-point shot has changed the game, but if it means guys like Lillard and Curry can stretch defenses to the point of shattering and turn near-half-court shots into an efficient play, then I’m not complaining.

And if deep 3s aren’t your feat of choice, Lillard can also make off-balance, one-footed 3s, too:

Yes, this went in. Lillard’s evolution has been a marvel to watch. It seems like each season he comes in more polished, and with a deeper shot. I don’t know if we’ll ever see him and the Blazers in the NBA Finals, but for now, I’ll choose to remember this season for this six-game stretch—and relish his ridiculous shot-making.