PORTLAND -- While the majority of NBA world focused in on LeBron James and the Cavaliers' really big rings and the super-team that is the Golden State Warriors be not that super against the San Antonio Spurs, Damian Lillard started off his MVP campaign with a performance reminiscent of Michael Jordan.
That is not a hyperbole.
Leading the Trail Blazers to a 113-104 victory over the Jazz on Tuesday, Lillard finished with 39 points, nine rebounds and six assists. In the history of the NBA, only Jordan has produced a similar stat line like that in a season opener.
Damian Lillard is first player with at least 39 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in a season opener since Michael Jordan (11/3/89 vs. CLE).
-- Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) October 26, 2016
Jordan's season-opening performance in 1989 was utterly ridiculous as he scored 54 points, grabbed 14 boards and dished out six assists. And while Lillard may not have scored quite as many points as Jordan, he was quite sensational on Tuesday.
Led by Joe Johnson's 15-point third quarter, the Jazz clawed back from an eight-point halftime deficit to take an 83-77 lead heading into the fourth. Johnson remained hot, scoring 12 more points, yet as it has been for quite some time now in Portland, the fourth quarter was Dame Time. Lillard scored 16 of his game-high 39 points in the final period, driving into Utah's defense and challenging shot-blocking maestro Rudy Gobert at the rim time and time again. Lillard also hit a clutch three with slightly over a minute left that essentially sealed the victory for the Blazers.
"He reminded me of Damian Lillard," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said about Lillard's performance after the game. "He had a good flow offensively. He made big plays for us obviously down the stretch. I thought he played in a really good rhythm all night. It's kind of the way he's been playing in preseason. He's healthy, he feels good. I thought he managed the game well. Obviously his stat line speaks for itself."
Lillard's season-opening performance provides a small measure of vindication to his claim before the start of the season that he wants to win the MVP award. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Lillard has a great shot at winning the award. Unsurprisingly, so do Blazers fans, showering him with MVP chants at virtually every one of his trips to the free-throw line on Tuesday.
If Lillard continues to play at the same level he did against the Jazz, he surely will be in the running for the award. However, the MVP typically goes to a player whose team is in the top two or three in their conference and it is hard to see the Blazers winning more games than the Warriors, Spurs and perhaps even the Clippers. Plus, there are players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook whose teams may not be near the top of the conference yet will likely put up dynamic performances on a nightly basis this season.
But Lillard isn't getting his heart set on winning the MVP. He is more focused on becoming a better player, building off the work he put in over the summer and in training camp.
"This game isn't going to win me MVP." Lillard said. "I think that people talk about what Steve Kerr said, and then they asked me and I said I wanted to be MVP and it seemed like I was seeing it everywhere. But the most important thing is your actions. I spent a lot of time this summer working on my game and trying to be a better player. We had a great camp. Our team competed really hard. Guys made it hard for me in camp. We fouled each other all through camp, it was a physical camp. So I feel prepared. The best way to show that I really mean that is by going out there and playing like it, and tonight was a good start."
One unique aspect of Lillard's performance against the Jazz was how frequently he was able to attack Gobert at the rim. Gobert's nickname is the Stifle Tower, and that's for good reason as the Jazz center averaged 2.0 blocks last season and has a seemingly never-ending wing span. He is the anchor of Utah's defense, one of the best in the league last year, and he's a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season. Yet Lillard seemed unbothered by Gobert's lurking presence in the paint. Protecting the ball, Lillard just kept altering his body to not get blocked by Gobert and then would just make a layup that kissed off the glass just out of reach of the big man's outstretched hand.
"Damian Lillard is a terrific, terrific player." Jazz coach Quin Synder said. "There's things he's going to that even if you play really good defense, he will still make shots."
Lillard's unwavering confidence and athleticism in large part helped him score at the rim so frequently. But Lillard also attributed his ability to score against a taller defender like Gobert to the training that he and C.J. McCollum did in the offseason, when they each took turns in their workouts, attacking the basket which was guarded by a six-foot-nine coach the Blazers recently hired.
Who this coach is remains a mystery as both Lillard and McCollum wouldn't give his name out. But Lillard believes practicing making shots at the rim against this coach, who used verticality to alter the Blazers guards' layups, is a big reason why he was so successful against Gobert in the season opener.
"Over the summer, we got a guy who was working out with me every morning. He's huge, about 6-8, 6-9," Lillard said. "He [could block] some of my shots. So the whole summer, I'm finishing around him, and having to be crafty enough to get the ball up and get it on the glass. Getting into his body. Knowing when to attack this way or crossover the other way and turn his hips, so he can't get off the ground as quick. Laying the ball up off time. Bigs are great at timing your jump, so instead of me timing it perfect, I do it off rhythm."
Lillard, though, understands that while his hard work against this mystery coach was successful against Gobert, he can't count on it always working. But overall, Lillard is confident that his game will reach another level this year due to his confidence and comfort-level from playing in the league for five seasons.
"It's hard," Lillard said about scoring against Gobert and other big men of similar size. "I rather him come up higher on the pick and roll so I could freeze him on the perimeter and then kind of get away from him. When he's in the paint, it's tough to do. Tonight they went in, maybe the next time we play them, they may not go in. But I think the biggest thing is that I was comfortable getting to those finishes."
Lillard's shots were definitely dropping and he looked extremely comfortable in leading the Blazers to a comeback victory. The crazy thing is that his performance seemed almost normal, like it was a level of production that he will be able to sustain throughout the rest of the season. If he actually is able to accomplish that, perhaps Lillard could be in the running for the MVP award. It's something that wouldn't surprise his teammates, if it happens.
"We've all seen what he could to do." Blazers forward Ed Davis said of Lillard. "He could do that every night if he wanted to."