If you haven't been paying attention to the Portland Trail Blazers, you probably don't know that in the logjam that is the Western Conference's 3-10 seeds, they sit at the top. On Monday, they gave us a late-night treat with a back-and-forth shootout against Lonzo Ball and the Lakers, with the Blazers prevailing for one very simple reason: They have Damian Lillard.
The man is a luxury.
Lillard, who remains a criminally underrated superstar in this league, was a stone-cold killer once again, scoring 39 points on 6 of 11 from 3-point land -- four of which he hit on four straight possessions during a fourth-quarter run that was jump-out-of-your-seat wild. Feast on this:
4 possessions. 4 straight triples.— NBA (@NBA) March 6, 2018
Damian Lillard had the hot hand late in LA! pic.twitter.com/54uQ2U8ahH
As this was going on, our NBA chat room here at CBS Sports was buzzing. I make no secret of my affection for Lillard's game, and while everyone I work with agrees he's great, I just can't ever get them to go to a level of adoration that will satisfy me. I think he's a top-five point guard in the league, and probably a top-15 player. Let's agree that Stephen Curry and James Harden, in whatever order feels right to you, are the two best point guards. After that, we're arguing about Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Lillard for the third-best point guard in the league.
I'm going to catch hell for this, but I'm taking Lillard over all those guys. I'm willing to hear a case for Paul, and I may even capitulate on a given day because he's the best defender of the group. But Lillard's capacity to dominate a game, particularly in crunch time, is as high as anyone in the league, point guard or otherwise. Before Lillard went on his 3-point rampage against the Lakers, I dropped in our chat room that he was better than Kyrie, and that set the place off. My colleague, Colin Ward-Henninger, had shot down that claim earlier in the night. My editor, Adi Joseph, came at me with this:
Adi [10:48 p.m.]: Kyrie all day all day all day
- 1. Younger
- 2. Better shooter
- 3. Better finisher at the rim
- 4. Better handle
- 5. Neither's a good defender, but Kyrie has proven he can be part of a great defense
Every one of these claims is reasonable, if not outright undeniable (Kyrie is irrefutably the best ball-handler in the game). And yet, if I had to win one game, I'd pick Lillard every time. This is about more than numbers. He is just that guy you watch play and immediately know: That dude is a killer, even among other killers. Lillard's 36-percent mark on the year from 3-point land is at once mystifying and meaningless, because he is without question one of the silkiest, most ice-water assassins from deep that the NBA has ever seen.
And again, LIllard's as clutch as they come -- the leading second-half scorer in the league. Also again, this goes beyond the numbers. Per 100 possessions, LeBron James, Kyrie, Paul, Westbrook, Curry, Victor Oladipo, DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler all score more in clutch situations than Lillard. But there isn't anyone I'd rather have the ball with the game on the line. He does things like he did to the Lakers routinely. Never even changes his expression. Total business as usual, just out there killing people without raising his blood pressure a single point.
Take Curry out of the conversation, and nobody threatens you with range like Lillard does. I realize Kyrie has the ball on a string, but let's not sleep on Lillard's handle and ability to get space for his lightning-quick release. Kyrie is a more creative finisher, but Lillard is a stronger, more explosive athlete who will just flat out dunk on fools.
Kyrie, or Curry or Harden or Paul for that matter, ain't doing this:
Of the aforementioned group, Westbrook is the only one with the athleticism to do that, and to tout Lillard is in no way an attempt to knock Westbrook, or any other these other elite players. But let's call a spade a spade: Lillard is doing more with less. Westbrook --with a legit second superstar alongside him in Paul George and another Hall of Famer in Carmelo Anthony, not to mention one of the best centers in the league in Steven Adams -- is playing with far more talent that Lillard, and yet as it stands, OKC doesn't even control its own destiny to make the playoffs.
For the life of me, I juts can't figure out how Lillard is consistently thought of as a step below the elite point guards. He's always a talked about as a borderline All-Star, with a lot of people having the audacity to say he shouldn't have made it. He's always on the bubble for national teams. He is never talked about as a true MVP candidate, which is a basketball crime. Look at that Blazers roster and tell me one other reason they're No. 3 in a loaded Western Conference right now. Lillard didn't make the cut for the 2016 Olympic team, but Kyle Lowry did.
Kyle Lowry is not on Damian Lillard's level.
When Kyle Lowry can't find his game in the playoffs, Damian Lillard does nothing but constantly rise to whatever occasion is in front of him. The bigger the stage, the better he plays. The Blazers were losing Monday night, and in this Western Conference playoff race, every loss is a killer. Lillard simply didn't let it happen.
"At the seven-minute mark, I said 'I'm going to be aggressive,'" Lillard said in his on-court interview after the game. "If we lose, I'm going to go out firing."
Oh, he went out firing alright.
As usual, that worked out pretty well for the Blazers.