He’s lifted his game to new heights inside the NBA bubble, but what sets the Trail Blazers’ point guard apart is the fierce loyalty and outsider spirit that’s driven him from the start.
Maybe it’s because he plays for a team in a smaller market. Or because more than half of his games don’t start until after 10pm on the east coast. Or because he’s only played in one conference finals, when more of the casuals start watching, since entering the league in 2012. Whatever the reason, Damian Lillard is not quite a household name beyond dedicated NBA circles.
It doesn’t make a lick of sense, though. The 30-year-old point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers is a five-time All-Star. He’s made the cover of NBA 2K, which, yes, is still a big deal. He’s released three LPs as Dame Dolla (an acronym for Different On Levels the Lord Allows) and, even more improbably, they don’t suck. His 37-foot buzzer-beater to eliminate the Thunder from last year’s playoffs and effectively bury the Russell Westbrook era in Oklahoma City is one of the greatest shots in playoff history (say nothing of the slew of memes his hilariously detached victory stare inspired).
But when 116 current players were asked to name the NBA’s most underrated player in an anonymous poll last year, Lillard came in second.
These days, however, you couldn’t overlook Lillard if you tried. The 6ft 2in floor general has been on a historic tear since the NBA resumed its season in the Disney World bubble last month with Portland three and and a half games adrift of a postseason spot, averaging a preposterous 36.9 points and 9.7 assists in nine games and hauling the Blazers by force of will into the No 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, where they will face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in a blockbuster first-round series beginning Tuesday night.
Real ones have known Lillard is different, but Bubble Lillard has emerged as the must-watch star of the restart. He’s making a mockery of perimeter defenders, slashing and careening to the goal in a blur. He’s casually pulling up from half court. He’s dropping new tracks on Soundcloud. It’s hard to immediately recall anything quite like it.
If there’s been an off note to Lillard’s stratospheric run of form, it came during last week’s game with the LA Clippers. With 18 seconds left and Portland trailing by one, Lillard clanked a pair of free throws, then shorted a potential game-tying three-pointer. The loss pushed the Blazers to the brink of elimination from the playoff race. And the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley and Paul George weren’t shy about letting Lillard know it, clowning him mercilessly from the bench before doubling down afterward on social media.
Clearly, it didn’t sit well. Over the next three games, each of them must-wins to keep Portland’s fraying postseason hopes alive, Lillard poured in a combined 154 points:
- 51 points and seven assists in a 124-121 win over Philadelphia
- 61 points (matching his career high) and eight assists in a 134-131 win over Dallas
- 42 points and 12 assists in a 134-133 win over Brooklyn
This made Lillard the first player in NBA history to score 40 or more points in three consecutive games his team won by three or fewer points. Said Blazers coach Terry Stotts, correctly: “We needed every one of them.”
So Lillard is filthy, historically so. But filthy ballplayers come and go. What truly sets Dame apart is the outsider spirit that drives him. The modern NBA is full of thirsty ring-chasers practically tripping over themselves each summer to try and form the next superteam in free agency, but Lillard’s progression from the Bay Area to the pros has been marked by an almost palpable sense of loyalty.
Back in high school Lillard played for the Oakland Rebels AAU team because their coach, Raymond Young, was among the first to spot his potential when he was in eighth grade. He turned down repeated overtures to join the higher profile Oakland Soldiers, which meant less visibility and fewer scholarship offers, which is how Lillard wound up attending Weber State University in Ogden, Utah – a far cry from NBA factories like Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina and perhaps an even farther leap culturally for a teenager from East Oakland. Since graduating with a degree in sales, he still makes regular visits to campus during the season and over the summer.
When Lillard became a free agent at the end of his three-year rookie deal with the Blazers, there wasn’t a team in the league that wouldn’t have emptied the coffers to bring him aboard. But Lillard never even considered leaving the club that took a chance on an undersized guard from a mid-major conference with the sixth overall pick in the draft, agreeing to a max extension to remain with Portland before negotiations could even start. He famously chose to wear the No 0 shirt with the Blazers to carry these three stages of his journey with him as a constant reminder of how far he’s come: Oakland, Ogden and Oregon.
“If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?” Lillard told Complex last year. “I wanna be the one, the star that wants to be here. … I wanna be the one that embodies all of those things and then be a part of the rise from ‘we haven’t won since ‘77, and now we won, and Dame’s everything to our city.’”
If this is to be the year, Portland will need still more magic from Lillard to get through a Lakers side that rolled to the best record in the Western Conference behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a pair of stars who, it must be said, left their previous clubs to team up in pursuit of a title. And, truly, what’s the fun in that?