Damian Lillard is too good not to have a game like this. He'd been held in check for the first three second-round games with the San Antonio Spurs, shooting 37.5 percent from the field and missing almost all of his 3-point attempts. Lillard's defining characteristic is his poise, though, and it seemed inevitable he'd find some answers in Game 4.
Facing elimination on Tuesday, the Portland Trail Blazers point guard came through with a game-high 25 points on 11-for-21 shooting, plus five assists and four rebounds. He orchestrated the attack that outscored the Spurs by 15 points in the third quarter, then scored the first nine points of the final frame to help his team pull away.
"It could have been our last game, so I just wanted to leave it all out there," Lillard said.
He hit a couple of 3s and in-between shots, but what will stick out is the way Lillard attacked the basket. San Antonio had done such an excellent job of sending help and stifling him earlier in the series, but he stayed persistent and he recognized his opportunities. He slithered into the paint when he had to, and on the rare occasion when the Spurs gave him some space, he pounced.
After Game 3, when his team surrendered any realistic chance of advancing to the conference finals, Lillard had every right to be deflated. It was the third game in a row in which San Antonio built a huge halftime lead and withstood every Portland run.
"We're just seeing them put on a clinic on how to execute, how to guard every option of our offense," he said on Friday night, via Blazersedge's Ben Golliver. He added, though, that his team would not lie down.
The Blazers did not. In Game 4 they finally finished the first quarter with the lead, and they held onto it at halftime. Lillard and company fed off the energy of the Moda Center crowd from the start. It could very well have been the last game played there this season, and if so, at least the fans went home happy. Lillard said this one had "a completely different feel."
"I wasn't so much embarrassed about being down 3-0, I was embarrassed about how they won the three games," Lillard said. "I think that was the more embarrassing thing, just looking like we didn't belong in the series. I thought tonight we played our basketball, we competed and we showed why we've been able to get to this point."
The great thing about Lillard has always been how he learns. This sophomore season is just a stepping stone, whether it ends in San Antonio on Wednesday or later on. Three and a half years ago, a broken foot in college briefly had Lillard down in the dumps. He then started shooting from a chair and devouring game film. He came back an improved player, and turned himself into an unlikely lottery pick.
When Lillard won Rookie of the Year a year ago, he said he wanted more: to be an All-Star, an MVP-winner, a champion. He crossed the first one off his list in February, and he's since added a series-winning buzzer-beater to his resume. The Spurs tested him in this series, and it took him a few games for him to find his rhythm. Regardless of how many games he has left in this battle against San Antonio, there's no doubt he'll be better for it.