It was not supposed to finish like this for Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. Not this 12 months.
Dealt what appeared like a deadly blow in March when Jusuf Nurkic, Portland’s indispensable inside presence, was misplaced for the season with a damaged leg, the staff one way or the other grew stronger. The Blazers entered the postseason able to vanquish their playoff demons, and Lillard — so lengthy in Golden State’s shadow and pushed by a primary-spherical exit final season — appeared as much as the problem.
That feeling solely grew within the first spherical when he virtually single-handedly dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder, a plucky (and star-studded) underdog that some had predicted would pull off an upset. The sequence was over in solely 5 video games, and the one query it left was which of its greatest moments would dwell longer within the recollections of basketball followers: the unattainable shot Lillard threw as much as finish Game 5, the wave he provided towards the Thunder bench, or the look of dispassionate dedication on his face when TV cameras captured him in a pile of his celebrating teammates.
Any one of many moments could possibly be referred to as iconic in its personal proper, however the look on Lillard’s face — all enterprise on the middle of a joyous, chaotic dogpile — served discover to the remainder of the league that he was coming for them, as effectively.
Suddenly, after Monday’s collapse by Portland — one which got here in a sequence filled with Portland collapses — Lillard was gone. His staff had reached the convention finals, nevertheless it was as soon as once more swept away by a Warriors dynasty that, even quick two All-Stars, merely had too many choices for Portland to breathe. And it was Lillard — nursing a rib damage sustained in Game 2 — whom they suffocated essentially the most.
[With triple-doubles by Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Golden State advanced to the N.B.A. finals for a fifth consecutive season.]
Through the first three games of the Blazers series, Golden State dared anyone but Lillard to beat them. The Warriors did so by throwing size and numbers at the 6-foot-3 Lillard, a four-time All-Star. If he got through the 6-foot-7 Klay Thompson, he had to deal with the 6-foot-6 Andre Iguodala; if he got through Iguodala, there stood Draymond Green, the most dominant defensive player of these playoffs, who is likely nowhere near his listed height of 6 feet 7 inches but plays as if he were well over 7 feet tall.
“It’s like a next layer of defense that I’m paying attention to, so whereas I’m not, I guess, wanting to explode and get around that guy, because I see what’s waiting for me,” Lillard said of Green on Sunday. He added: “It’s tough.”
Thanks in large part to Iguodala being out with an injury on Monday, Lillard found some room to breathe in Game 4. He scored 28 points, dished out 12 assists, and got some unexpected help from Meyers Leonard, who scored a career-high 30 points. But it wasn’t enough, as Golden State, which repeatedly fell behind, managed to win, 119-117, in overtime.
The strategy to swarm Lillard worked to perfection. He came into Monday shooting a dismal 32.6 percent from the field and was scoring only 20.3 points a game — a steep drop-off from his average of 33 per game in the first round. But Leonard opened some space on the floor with terrific first-half shooting on Monday and Lillard shined for much of the game, only to come up just short. His 3-point attempt with 1.3 seconds left could not find its way through the basket even if Coach Terry Stotts let himself dream that his superstar had pulled out yet another game-winner
“I thought it was going to — kind of meant to be,” Stotts said, struggling to sum up his emotions over the missed shot that ended his team’s season. “When he shot it, it had good arc. Yeah, I thought it had a chance.”
Lillard knew coming into the game that a loss would be blamed on him regardless of the quality of his play. Dogged by questions about the rib injury sustained in a collision with Kevon Looney, he seemed frustrated with fans who expected him to single-handedly lift a team that he has carried on his shoulders so many times in the past.
“I just think people want to see me doing it,” he said. “They want me to be making shots and doing all this stuff, but it’s different when you’re out there. Being a part of the game is different than somebody just watching.”
In a basketball landscape in which legacies seem to be constantly re-examined, Lillard’s struggles are threatening to result in his being labeled a regular-season star who couldn’t lift his team in the playoffs. A Russell Westbrook, rather than a Kawhi Leonard.
Portland’s season ending early once again can’t help in that regard, but seven years into his career, Lillard has proved to be nothing short of phenomenal. He just wrapped up his fourth consecutive season of averaging 25 or more points a game, he has perhaps the deepest effective shooting range of any player not named Stephen Curry and he has shown over and over again that he is the type of star who can thrive when pressure is at its highest. Yet he was inexplicably left off the All-Star rosters in both 2016 and 2017, and he has finished in the top five of the Most Valuable Player Award voting only once.
And while his teams have, indeed, failed in the playoffs, even a glance at the rosters Lillard has worked with versus the rosters of the team’s he’s competed against — Portland is 1-12 in the playoffs against Golden State over the last four years — seems to be enough to take any asterisks off his stardom.
Golden State’s players — even Green — said repeatedly on Sunday that they expected Lillard to come out firing in Game 4. They warned outsiders, and perhaps reminded themselves, that nothing should be seen as a foregone conclusion.
Lillard, faced with a series deficit no N.B.A. team has ever overcome, against a team that many feel is unbeatable, showed no signs of quitting right up until the final seconds of overtime. His season was on the brink, but he had come into the day still believing the Blazers could find a way to win not just the game but the entire series.
“You know, you look at the numbers and there’s a slim chance of you winning the series like that, but we’ve got a lot to play for,” Lillard said of coming back from a three-game deficit. “Obviously you never know when the first time it’s going to happen. We could be the first team to do it.”
They fell short of that mark. But Lillard will be back. And if he ever gets the help he needs, the rest of the league could be in trouble.