The surprising thing, really, is that it’s not surprising at all anymore. You shouldn’t be able to expect what Damian Lillard did to the Pelicans on Tuesday night. And yet, at this point—after years of moments to burnish the branding, and halfway through a season that’s brought it all to a heretofore-unparalleled level—how could you expect anything else?
New Orleans largely dominated the first three and a half quarters of TNT’s late game, riding strong performances from Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, and sophomore reserve Nickeil Alexander-Walker to a 17-point lead with just under six minutes to go. At that point, the Pelicans’ odds of securing the W stood at 99.7 percent, according to Mike Beuoy’s win probability numbers at Inpredictable; even in an era when shooting and scoring efficiency are through the roof and no lead ever seems safe, it sure seemed like it was all over but the shoutin’.
And then … well … y’know.
Down 17, the Trail Blazers blitzed New Orleans with a 25-7 run to snatch a 125-124 victory from the jaws of defeat. At the heart of it all was Lillard, who poured in 15 points of his own during that closing kick, including four straight free throws in the final 5.2 seconds to clinch it. He finished with 50 points—his 12th career 50-ball, tying LeBron James for seventh on the all-time list—on borderline obscene shooting (7-for-7 inside the arc, 6-for-13 from beyond it, 18-for-18 at the foul line) to go with 10 assists and six rebounds in 41 minutes.
It was comprehensive brilliance—one of the half-dozen best individual performances of the season, according to Stathead’s Game Score metric, which is sort of like single-game PER—punctuated by peerless late-game shot- and playmaking. That this level of precision and production has become predictable in Portland should not inure us to the fact that it is fucking bonkers.
“Dame Time” has been part of the NBA fan’s lexicon for years now, but it’s reached a brand-new stratosphere this season. He’s always been good in close-and-late situations: In the first eight years of his career, Lillard ranked 16th, fifth, eighth, 15th, third, eighth, ninth, and sixth in total points scored in the final five minutes of games where the score was within five points, NBA Advanced Stats’ definition of “clutch” moments. This season, though? No. 1, by a lot; he’s scored 19 more points than second-place Zach LaVine in seven fewer “clutch” minutes.
Lillard’s accuracy in those minutes has defied logic and physics: 19-for-28 (68 percent) from 2-point range, 16-for-30 (53 percent) from 3-point land, and a perfect 38-for-38 at the stripe, with a stellar 16-to-6 assist-to-turnover ratio to boot. With the clock winding down and a live dribble, this season’s Dame is the goddamn Terminator:
And, as a result, the Blazers have been one of the best crunch-time teams in the NBA, going 16-6 in clutch games (second best in the league behind the 76ers) with a plus-24.1 clutch net rating (no. 3, behind Philly and the soaring Hornets). This is why Portland is 23-16, tied for fifth in the West and just two games behind an excellent Clippers team for fourth: When the outcome’s in the balance, Damian Lillard has straight up taken it. Demanded it. Grabbed it with both hands, put it in his pocket, tapped his wrist, and walked off, easy as you please.
He’s had to, because he spent the bulk of the past two months without the running buddy with whom he’s typically shared those late-game responsibilities. CJ McCollum was off to the best start of his career this season, averaging 27.6 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game and shooting a blistering 43.3 percent from long distance on more than 11 attempts a night through his first dozen appearances; he looked like a strong contender for the first All-Star berth of his career. But then, one game after starting center Jusuf Nurkic went down with a fractured right wrist, McCollum—who’d been more or less an iron man over the previous five seasons—suffered a hairline fracture in his left foot, leaving Portland without its second- and third-best players for 25 games, more than a third of this COVID-compressed season.
We’ve seen Lillard go supernova in emergency situations before. In January 2020, with Portland so decimated by injuries that it had signed a then-out-of-work Carmelo Anthony to a nonguaranteed contract, Dame averaged just under 37 and nine on 51/48/89 shooting splits for a month straight, highlighted by one week in which he scored 61, 47, and 50 points, a three-game stretch bested only by Wilt, Kobe, Jordan, or Harden. He still had McCollum riding shotgun for most of that month, though; this time around, Dame’s been flying solo, and that’s been enough for the Blazers to persevere, going 14-11 with the NBA’s no. 4 offense.
Lillard’s impact shows here, too—not only in his own stepped-up production, but in the way that he both shoulders a larger individual load so that the rest of Portland’s rotation doesn’t have to, and creates a context in which his teammates can thrive by starring in their roles. With Dame entrenched as the sun, everyone else can fall into orbit, warmed by the confidence that the franchise centerpiece helps instill in them.
Gary Trent Jr. can continue to build on his breakthrough in the bubble, and still-gestating young dudes like Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little can assume a bit more responsibility. Defense-first wings Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. can do what they do best without having to worry about generating their own offense, because shots will be created for them. Veterans like Anthony and Enes Kanter know exactly where their opportunities will come from and what’s expected of them, because the pecking order is crystal clear, and they know that the extra effort they put in will be rewarded.
Tom Thibodeau has long been fond of saying that when it comes to team success, the magic is in the work. It’s more than that, though; it’s also in making others want to do the work, to share in it, and to celebrate the rewards it generates, even if they’re reaped by your teammate rather than yourself. It’s in the behind-the-scenes stuff, as Lillard said during his on-court interview after Tuesday’s win—not only the hours in the gym, but also the compassion and camaraderie that makes a team more than the sum of its parts:
That attitude and approach has come to define the Blazers throughout Lillard’s tenure in the Pacific Northwest. It has shaped Portland’s identity, sustaining the franchise through injuries and churn, year after year. It’s built something that matters within the Blazers, with or without postseason hardware to show for it. And it, as much as Dame’s late-game sharpshooting, has kept them afloat in a chaotic and competitive Western Conference this season.
It’s also about to face an awfully stern test. The Blazers face a brutal upcoming stretch: Over the next month, they’ll take on the surging Mavericks, Nets, Heat, and Bucks, and head on the road for matchups with the Clips and Jazz. All told, Portland’s got the third-toughest remaining slate in the NBA, according to Tankathon’s strength of schedule metric; in a related story, the models at Basketball-Reference.com, FiveThirtyEight, and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index all expect the Blazers to finish somewhere around the seventh or eighth seed, squarely in the midst of the play-in tournament.
There’s that word again: “expect.” The Blazers have outperformed their expected win-loss record in seven of Lillard’s eight seasons; thanks to their sterling performance in crunch time, they’re on pace to do it again. McCollum came back on Tuesday, and Nurkic should join him in “approximately two weeks,” according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. The cavalry’s on the way, and could even include more reinforcements: Haynes also identified the Blazers as “a dark-horse squad that could join” the pursuit of Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, a multitalented forward who has long seemed like precisely the sort of defense-and-playmaking frontcourt piece that Lillard’s been missing. Before long, Portland could look like one of the deepest teams in the conference. Those additions will have a chance to matter because Lillard held down the fort, again, acting as both the floor-raising floor general who makes everybody around him better and the ceiling-obliterating offensive destroyer who ensures that the Blazers, even when outmanned, are never outgunned.
As my Ringer colleague Jonathan Tjarks wrote last month, it might not matter come the postseason. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all, though. To a city, a fan base, and any neutral observer staying up late on a Tuesday just to see whether lightning might strike, it matters that a 0.3 percent chance of winning might be all the chance Lillard needs. It’s Dame Time all the time these days, and right now, that matters a whole hell of a lot.