Damian Lillard always will remember his first game-winning shot, largely because the play resulted in a loss. Seventeen years ago, with his Oakland AAU team down two, the 13-year-old Lillard rose up and nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. The moment was charged with so much energy that Lillard ripped his jersey off in celebration. AAU rules stipulate that if a player removes his jersey within the confines of the playing area, it’s a technical foul and the opposing team gets two free throws. Lillard’s coach ran onto the court yelling for Lillard to put his jersey back on. But it was too late.
“The other team made the two free throws with no time on the clock, and we lost the game,” Lillard said over the phone last month.
After leading the comeback that had given his team a chance at the win, Lillard’s moment of glory evaporated. But to hear him talk now, it’s clear he turned the disappointment of that day into part of his success story. At a low point, Lillard still unearthed a valuable lesson about his game.
“We was getting blown out the whole game, and the tide started to turn when I started to get more aggressive; when I started to impose my will,” Lillard said. “The more I had those moments—in eighth grade, ninth grade—I realized when I put my foot down and really apply pressure, I can change the outcome for my team. ... I think that was the beginning of it.”
If that was the beginning for Lillard, then the past 17 years have been an evolution toward becoming the NBA’s preeminent clutch scorer. The game-winners haven’t stopped as he’s gotten older; they’ve multiplied. And they’ve gone from being fun regular-season moments to iconic playoff-series enders to the defining shots of Lillard’s professional career.
Since 2013, Lillard has been one of the NBA’s top 15 scorers in crunch time (the last five minutes of a five-point game) every season. He’s vaulted into the top 10 in each of the past five seasons. And this year, he’s been the best clutch scorer in the league, recording 162 points in the last five minutes of close games, including seven game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final minute—all of which led to Blazers wins. As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted this week, Lillard’s effective field goal percentage in the clutch this season is 61.4 percent—the highest ever for a player whose usage rate is at least 35 percent in 100 or more clutch minutes.
Most of Lillard’s game-winners have not been as chaotic as the play above, which came against Chicago in late January. But the fact that Lillard pulled that off on a broken play shows why his teammates and coaches do everything in their power to get him the ball in important moments. He has the confidence, preparation, and ability to hit any shot at any time in any situation—something the Blazers are no doubt counting on as they try to get past the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. But his success is a product of much more than just a jump shot. We spoke to Lillard and those around him about what goes into practicing, planning, and executing these moments. And as Lillard himself will tell you, Dame Time did not arrive overnight.
Damian Lillard does not like wasting time. Just ask Orlando Watkins, the varsity boys’ basketball coach at Oakland High. Watkins coached Lillard for two seasons in high school, but perhaps his favorite memory of the guard comes from after their time together. It was July 15, 2011—Lillard’s 21st birthday—and rather than going out and celebrating, Lillard was working out at the high school gym. Watkins offered to take him out for a free meal and his first legal drink as a birthday present. But Lillard declined, saying he’d rather stay to practice.
Nearly every summer since he graduated, Lillard has returned to Oakland High to practice and get shots up. Dame has his own individual routine, but Watkins says he’ll also interrupt his workout to participate in drills with the varsity team and give them feedback. “He’ll be like, ‘If you’re gonna be in here, you might as well go hard,’” Watkins said. “He’s trying to instill in them that there’s no need to be in here for three hours and only do 20 minutes of real work. Just go hard for an hour, go hard for 30 minutes, and then get up out of here, because there’s no need to fake it.”
That mindset carries over to the way Lillard approaches all of his offseason work. Each summer, Lillard works with his longtime trainer, Phil Beckner, to add another tool to his game, make another adjustment, take another leap. Player improvement isn’t always linear, especially once you get to the NBA, but Lillard has continuously built on the sharp-shooting foundation that propelled him from Oakland High to Weber State to the pros. And though his offseason reps are aimed at improving his all-around game, every skill he practices has a purpose in crunch-time situations, too.
“Some guys will get bored with monotony, but when he steps out there to get better, he’s as good as it gets when it comes to every rep counts,” Blazers associate head coach Nate Tibbetts said earlier this month. “He doesn’t want to just be doing a drill to do it. He wants to know for sure that it’s going to carry over to the game.”
Lillard’s routine begins with a steady diet of lifting and film study. Then comes the on-court work, which typically starts with a foundational shooting drill—a warm-up of sorts where Lillard takes reps from the restricted area and keeps moving backward until he’s beyond the 3-point line. (Beckner and Lillard have done this so often that Lillard told me in 2018 he could do it with his eyes closed.) From there, he goes through a set-foot shot drill, where he takes 3s while keeping his feet on the ground in order to improve his lower body and core strength. In total, Lillard puts up roughly 200 to 300 3s per practice, and they come in just about every way possible: fadeaway jumpers, pull-ups going left, pull-ups going right, stepbacks left, and stepbacks right, all from different spots around the court.
Blazers center Enes Kanter remembers showing up to training camp this offseason—his first with the team—and seeing Lillard shooting and making 3s from half court with ease. “I was with the coaches watching him and I’m like, ‘Let me try to do the same thing,’” Kanter said. “I’m a big guy, strong guy, so I was like let’s see if I can do the same thing. And I tried—I couldn’t hit the rim. It’s crazy that he takes half-court shots like he’s making free throws.”
The theme that threads all of Lillard’s offseason work together is a lack of complacency. There’s always something to improve upon. It’s the motor that keeps Lillard going, and those around him say it applies to much more than just basketball.
“Dame’s personality is like, ‘Hey, I’m good enough. I want to be acknowledged for my greatness, whether it be cooking, whether it be boxing, whether it be rapping,’” Watkins said. “‘I know I’m good enough, and I’m going to put forth my best effort, and if I do that more often than not, I’m gonna come out on top.’ And I think that’s the way that he lives: ‘I’ve put in the work, so I’ve earned this.’”
Even now that Lillard’s crunch-time game has become legendary, he keeps working to make it better. He could have settled for shooting from 25 feet out, but every offseason, he challenges himself to expand his range. The way he sees it, each improvement adds to his confidence when his number is called in late-game moments.
“The best way to prepare for it is to know that you’re giving yourself the best chance to be successful,” Lillard said. “When it comes to the end of the game, I feel like I can lean on my training more than most people.”
Every time Lillard is confronted with a game-winning situation, he knows he’s done everything possible to set himself up for success. But a lot still has to go right for Lillard to even get the ball in those high-leverage moments, let alone get the perfect shot off.
Before the Play
Ironically, two of Lillard’s most impactful crunch-time shots both came on plays that were not drawn up for him.
Late in a game against Northern Colorado during Lillard’s freshman year, Weber State head coach Randy Rahe designed a play to get the team’s other best player—Kellen McCoy—a chance at a game-tying 3. During the inbound, though, the defense denied McCoy the ball, so Lillard took it, got a screen, and pulled up from 25 feet. Tie game. Weber State won in overtime.
A few years later, in Lillard’s second season in the NBA, the Blazers were down two in Game 6 of a first-round series against the Rockets. With 0.9 seconds left, Portland coach Terry Stotts drew up a play for LaMarcus Aldridge, but Mo Williams feinted a screen on the opposite side of the court and Lillard went running for an open look.
After those plays, both Rahe and Stotts quickly realized that their best bet in crunch time was to get Dame the ball. But as Lillard’s reputation in these moments grew, that plan also became a challenge. Defenses started to sell out to deny him the ball; they doubled him and blitzed him and used multiple players to make his life as difficult as possible.
“Once LaMarcus left, it was clear that Dame was the best player,” Stotts said. “My biggest thing was to get him the ball in some way and let him make a decision, a read on what kind of shot he was going to get.”
To help facilitate that, Stotts has made adjustments not only to play designs, but also to team strategies. For instance, Stotts typically rests Lillard at the start of the second and fourth quarters so that Dame’s biggest impact can come at the end of those periods, especially the fourth. The coach only draws up catch-and-shoot plays when the clock is too limited for anything else, because he’s found Dame is most effective off the dribble and in one-on-one situations. And there are times late in games when Stotts won’t use a timeout because the ball may not find its way back into Lillard’s hands after the stoppage of play. Sometimes that works to the team’s advantage, like in March of this year when, down one point against the Warriors, Lillard grabbed a rebound off a Steph Curry miss and drained a 29-foot stepback 3. But other times, a lack of a timeout is a disadvantage: In a game earlier this month against the Suns, Portland didn’t have a timeout and had to run an inbound play from the opposing baseline. Phoenix denied Lillard the ball, and CJ McCollum was forced to heave a prayer that missed.
If Portland is in a position to call a timeout, though, the Blazers’ huddle knows there won’t be too much said. The only question is: How do we get Lillard the ball? “It’s using different actions, different angles, starting him in different spots,” Tibbetts said. “He doesn’t need a ton of space, but trying to get creative in that way is probably the biggest challenge.”
During the Play
In late-game moments, space on the court is as valuable as beachfront real estate. And it’s up to Lillard and the Blazers to acquire as much as possible. It doesn’t matter what kind of play is being drawn up, or what situation the team is in. The more space Dame has once the ball is in his hands, the better.
It’s why, even back in high school, Watkins would run a simple late-game play called “Flat” that would leave Lillard alone to beat his man. At Weber State, Rahe put an increased emphasis on pick-and-rolls to help accentuate Lillard’s skills, and he’d call a “Thumb Up” play where Lillard’s teammates would sit on the baseline and a single big man would come up to set a middle ball screen in order to free Lillard.
Rahe says the most effective method of getting Lillard a shot in college was through something called “Four Flat.” That play—which kept all of Lillard’s teammates on the baseline and let him take on his man one-on-one—is not too different from what the Blazers use late in games now. The longer Lillard’s played in the league, and the more his reputation has grown, the less space he gets in crunch time. So by spreading the floor with shooters, he needs to create only a little room with his dribble.
In some ways, that makes the job of players like McCollum simple: stand in the corner and be ready. “I’m a guy who can shoot the ball, can score the ball, so I know that my man is generally not going to leave me,” McCollum said. “[Lillard] should have ample opportunity to drive or make a play on the side I’m on.”
But it also adds importance to the roles of Kanter and Jusuf Nurkic, who may be called into action in a pick-and-roll. Both have to take into account what side of the court Lillard is on, and whether they need to flip the screen, while also ensuring that they don’t get called for an offensive foul. “I know the best chance we’ve got for winning is if I free Dame, so I’m basically trying to get those better screens for him so he can have a better look,” Nurkic said. The chemistry between Nurkic and Lillard has developed to the point where a word, a nod, or a simple look is enough to let Nurkic know what he needs to do. “The later the game gets, the more we communicate.”
Lillard’s ever-expanding range has also helped the Blazers stretch defenses out, and as Tibbetts says, it’s forced opposing coaches and bigs to plan for screens much earlier, and much higher up the floor.
“It’s crazy. I’m starting to set the screens [near] half court,” Nurkic said. “It’s insane the way his range is, the way they guard him.”
Though the pick-and-roll is effective, as Lillard gets doubled, hounded, and blitzed more than any other player, it’s often better to not get any more bodies involved. Increasingly, the best option for Lillard is taking matters into his own hands.
“Honestly, Dame is best off the dribble,” Stotts said. “Dame’s best when the ball is in his hands, and then he can create the shot that he feels comfortable with.”
When Lillard has the ball at the top of the key, Tibbetts compares him to a quarterback going through his progressions. He has plenty of options at his disposal—everything from calling for a Nurkic screen to moving one way or the other in order to shift the defense to his liking, to simply clearing everyone out and taking the one-on-one challenge. The freedom to call an audible at any moment is something Lillard has earned, and everyone on the Blazers agrees that they want him to be the one making the call.
“Everybody says they want the last shot,” Stotts said. “But not everyone actually wants it because you’ve got to live with the results, too.”
During the early years of his NBA career, Lillard still had the element of surprise. No one knew he was a must-guard player late in the game, nor could they have foreseen just how prolific his crunch-time heroics would become. Now, though, once a game gets tight and every possession carries the possibility of a win or a loss, Dame Time is more like a train barreling down the track. Everyone can see and feel it, but few, if any, can stop it.
Defenses have tried to adjust, to anticipate—but so has Lillard, who has quickened his shot, deepened his range, and made himself more of a threat than ever.
“I think he’s at that stage to where he’s comfortable shooting from 27 feet, he’s comfortable getting to the basket, he’s comfortable doing a lot of things in the game,” McCollum said. “But his shot sets everything up. His ability to create shots off the bounce, create shots in pick-and-roll, or isolate situations, I think that allows him to be comfortable.”
If you ask Lillard where he prefers to operate, he’ll say the “slot” area between the wing and the top of the court. That’s where the Blazers try to keep him, too. The angle there is suitable for his jump shot, and whether he opts for the right side or the left depends on how things are going in that particular game. Like many decisions in these moments, Lillard doesn’t just operate on experience, but also feel, and he likes the array of options the slot gives him.
“It doesn’t matter which side that I’m on, I just like to be in a slight angle because I feel like when you do that, you can have a shooter in the strong-side corner,” Lillard said. “And then you can have somebody on the opposite corner and then on the opposite wing, and you’ll give yourself more space in case they try to run a double-team. Wherever the double-team comes from, it’ll expose them earlier when the court is spaced properly.”
Of course, the moneymaker is the shot. It’s why Lillard invests so much time in it during the offseason. It’s also why, as Kanter says, a 30-foot 3 isn’t a bad shot for Lillard, no matter what Paul George says. As his game has developed, though, Lillard has not only stretched defenses with his range, but also through his ability to blow by defenders and punish them at the rim (he’s shooting 63 percent within three feet this season).
“When Dame’s coming at you, he’s coming at you to [go to] the rim or he’s coming at you for a 3, and the defender knows that,” Tibbetts said. “So when Dame has the ball, he puts appropriate fear in that defender knowing that he could raise up or he could step back.”
Lillard says a crucial ingredient to his late-game shooting is conditioning. Part of his routine in the offseason is to go through a full workout that leaves him tired, and then take on more shooting drills to build endurance. Lillard knows he needs to be able to generate strength from his lower body even after playing 40-plus minutes of basketball. That extra stamina might determine whether a shot swishes in or rattles out.
“It’s training your body and your mind as well,” Lillard said. “So when those moments come, your belief in what you worked on is so high, you expect to be successful.”
Lillard’s two career series-ending playoff 3s act as great markers for the evolution of his late-game mindset. Against Houston in 2014, he drilled a catch-and-shoot 3 that was aided by some congestion and speed. Against Oklahoma City two seasons ago, he hit a step-back, pull-up 3 from deep in the right slot that showed what he has become: a one-man crunch-time knockout.
“I think the fact that this is a reputation that people see in me makes me want to go for it even more,” Lillard said. “Just to know that your opponent knows, like, ‘He will take me out,’ there’s like a rush like when that moment comes. It just makes you want to go and do it again.”
Lillard doesn’t rip off his jersey after hitting clutch shots anymore. Those moments have become so ubiquitous that his go-to celebration—a simple tap on the wrist—is now part of the basketball lexicon. Dame Time is a brand, a hashtag, even a Space Jam character. Blazers fans and people around the NBA expect those shots from Lillard. So do his teammates and coaches.
Lillard’s track record alone would probably make it easy for his teammates to buy into Dame Time. But to hear them gladly stump for Lillard’s abilities, it’s clear their admiration for him goes beyond just what they see in the final minutes of close games.
“The way he cares about people and the way he cared about me when I got here, our relationship took off and I didn’t even care about scoring any more,” Nurkic said. “I’m just grateful for the moments, to be on a side with him and see him do what he does every night. It’s a blessing to call him a best friend because it means more than the game.”
Yes, Nurkic acknowledges, the results matter—winning matters. And Lillard agrees. But he sees his work as more formulaic than magical, and his deep résumé of clutch shots is simply evidence that the formula is working. “I can handle failure,” Lillard said. “I don’t have shame about what could happen or what somebody might say or anything like that. But I expect to come out on top.”
The joy might be in the process, but it’s also in the moment just after the shot goes in. It’s a sensation that’s intoxicating even from afar—one you’d like to constantly relive. Fortunately for Stotts and the Blazers, they’ve experienced it plenty of times. And they don’t expect to stop any time soon.
“I always appreciate when he lives up to those moments,” Stotts said. “What I really enjoy is just seeing the reaction of his teammates, and the joy. That’s what sports are about.”