How Damian Lillard Hit 30 and Became the Most Inspiring Player in the NBA
Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers scores against the Denver Nuggets on February 4, 2020. Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images

How Damian Lillard Hit 30 and Became the Most Inspiring Player in the NBA

Ferocious and measured…

Damian Lillard has been a grown-ass goon probably since his diaper days, but in the midst of the NBA’s restart, some sort of mutation has taken hold. The catalyst is still a mystery. Maybe it was turning 30, as he did in July. Maybe it was the hermetically sealed environment of the NBA bubble, where fans are absent but competition isn’t. Regardless, the Trail Blazers’ point guard has officially entered Black-hot, stone-cold, baaad muhfucka territory.

His disposition has become damn near Denzelian — both ferocious and measured, in control yet willing to toss improvisational bombs that break the flow and geometry of a game. And despite his Portland team’s slim chances of getting past the Lakers to the rest of the postseason, Dame has made one thing crystal-clear: he won’t waste a single second of Dame Time.

Coming into the bubble, Lillard’s mission was already in danger; with the Blazers seeded ninth out of 13 teams, simply making the playoffs would require a heroic effort. But after he bricked two clutch free throws against the Clippers at the end of the bubble season and dealt a crucial blow to his team’s chances, he found what he needed: a grudge. As the Blazers shuffled off the court, Clips Paul George and Patrick Beverly cackled, mockingly pointing at their wrists and yelling “Dame Time.”

When asked during the postgame about the Clippers antics, Dame — with the icy stare he’s built a legend on — straight-up murked the troll duo by pulling out itemized receipts. “They know what I do,” he said. “[Patrick Beverly] saw it firsthand when I was a second-year player… I sent him home [in 2014]. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know.”

You could tell after that clutch loss and the silliness that ensued, that he was gonna scorch the entire bubble. And he did — hitting 40-foot threes, scoring 40-plus points a game, and keeping a tight jaw while doing it.

The coldest part? The ruthless citation didn’t even hit nearly as hard as the 112 points he put up in the two subsequent games — or the four-game streak that propelled the Blazers into the playoffs by what seemed like sheer force of will. For Lillard, that kind of offensive explosion is by now an expectation. What’s more telling is that he carries the same confidence in the rest of his squad, which over those four games managed a visibly exhausting level of excellence.

“I enjoy building real relationships with my teammates,” he told Rachel Nichols in a postgame conference, “I have a real friendship with all my teammates. I’m able to say certain things to them or share certain things with them in the heat of the battle, or on the bench, or in the locker room or whatever because they know I really care about them. They know I really want the best for ’em. So I think when you… show people that you care about them and you do it over time — and do it all the time — then you don’t have to be a dictator over everything or run everything. They respect you. And they reciprocate the energy you give them and it makes it easier to be a leader.”

Wouldn’t you, as sports talking heads say, run through a wall for that guy?

Any NBA or WNBA fan understands how difficult it is to accept the current order of things in the association. Yes, the league (in consult with epidemiologists) was able to put together a comprehensively safe environment for players to finish out the season, but we should be under no illusions. The restart was a cash grab with real repercussions. And especially for teams like the Blazers with slim playoff hopes, it meant separating from their families for at least 40 days to spend it with a bunch of dudes in Disney World.

Dame called bullshit early.

“If … they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team,” he told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. “But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now.”

According to Lillard, this quote reads as more pointed than its articulation. And if you’ve ever seen his gaze and manner of speaking, you’d be inclined to believe him. As he later explained on ESPN’s Jalen & Jacoby, “We’ve been off for two months and if we come back we wanna play for something. After this type of break, especially with how fast we’re going to jump into playing, I think guys are at risk for injury — and at risk of being exposed, too.” Dame wasn’t about to waste time or risk hurting himself just so the NBA could get paid, especially if there wasn’t a real chance at winning.

Dame talks the way he plays: controlled, full of unshakable poise, and with a deliberate sort of moxie that comes across in a steady, self-assured rhythm. Even when he says something that seems terse, like how PG and Beverly’s mocking of his Dame Time celebration is just a sign of respect for what he’s done to them in the playoffs (which is so deliciously true), there’s a knowing tinge of foresight. Everyone knew what was about to happen. You could tell after that clutch loss and the silliness that ensued, that he was gonna scorch the entire bubble. And he did — hitting 40-foot threes, scoring 40-plus points a game, and keeping a tight jaw while doing it.

These games mattered because he made them matter. The Blazers were in bad shape coming into the restart, littered with injuries to crucial players like Jusef Nurkic and Zach Collins, and without their most reliable perimeter defender after Trevor Ariza opted out. Even knowing that Nurkic and Collins might be available didn’t guarantee that the Blazers would be playing games with stakes by the end of the season.

But here we are, in the afterthroes of a Herculean effort not just from Lillard but from every important member of the Blazers roster. CJ McCollum is doing mythical shit himself, tossing dagger after late-game dagger to end the Memphis Grizzlies’ playoff hopes. Before that game, word got out that starting Nurkic was mourning the loss of his grandmother to Covid-19 — but the center, physically and emotionally exhausted, still tossed himself all over the court for loose balls. Carmelo Anthony, a year after loudmouths and owners had written him off, is experiencing a career resurgence. All of a sudden, these games meant everything to the Blazers.

For Dame, his squad showing out in defiance of the odds is no surprise. “Y’all know why I’m here,” he told Haynes after defeating the Nets to get into the playoffs — the Oakland-bred-me swagger of a slimmer, quieter Marshawn Lynch. In other words, we should come into every Blazers game knowing Dame’s gonna get his.

Apparently, we’re the only ones that are shocked. But the astonishment is a part of the euphoria surrounding the Blazers right now. That they’re going up against the presumptive Western Conference champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs only serves to boost Dame’s credibility in the NBA’s firmament.

Watching the Blazers sneak the first game from the top-seeded Lakers was worth it for the theatrics alone. The surreality of the NBA bubble has been enough to mindfuck elite players out of their regular routine, leaving even the best teams looking a little worse for wear. But Dame is a stabilizing force. A quiet dragon roaming the court scorching the hardwood with every long-distance fireball. The Blazers will have to be very lucky and very good to beat the Lakers, no question — but Dame has been good for years. The difference is that now he’s creating his own luck.