NBA Playoffs 2019: Damian Lillard makes his case as a top-five player in the world
His latest game-winner shows Lillard is the closest thing to a second Stephen Curry that the league has
Allow me to set the scene, in case you went to sleep before(understandable if you did; his work wasn't finished until 1 a.m. on the East Coast).
Lillard had put his imprint on Game 5 of this first-round playoff series from the tip. The Thunder jumped out to a big first quarter lead with Paul George doing Paul George things. Dame paid it no mind. He paid no mind when his backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, got his third foul in that first half and Blazers head coach Terry Stotts took the keys to the team and handed them to Dame. He played every minute in that first half, that stolid look on his face making it seem like he'd just finished an hour of meditation, hammering away at that lead until, by halftime, the Blazers were up one, with Lillard accounting for 34 points on 6-of-9 3-point shooting. It was the most in a single half of a playoff game since Steve Nash dropped 35 in a half way back in 2005. This was no aberration -- Lillard had averaged 28.8 points per game in the first four games of this series, and if you had to pick a single MVP of the NBA's first-round playoff series, it would have been Lillard -- but this was getting a little bit silly. Lillard couldn't miss.
In the second half, well … things got a little out of hand. Westbrook did some very un-Westbrook things, which is to say that he started making some jump shots (only "some" -- Westbrook ended up with a 29-point triple double, but he took 31 shots to get there). George channeled the version of himself that was a front-runner for MVP only two months ago, scoring 36 points on only 20 shots. Jerami Grant was a solid presence at the rim and at the 3-point line, and Dennis Schroder got in on the party too, and soon the nine-point lead the Blazers were nursing late in the third quarter became a 15-point Thunder lead halfway through the fourth. Over the span of fewer than eight minutes, the Thunder had gone on a 30-6 run. It seemed like the series was heading back to Oklahoma City for a Game 6.
Then: Dame. Or, at first, Dame's sidekick. McCollum took ownership of the game in the fourth quarter, making four buckets in six minutes to tie the game with under a minute left. After George and Dame exchanged buckets, the floor cleared out for Russell Westbrook, and the entire arena knew what he was going to do as the clock ticked down: Drive to the rim, and put up a reckless shot. He did, and he missed. Then came Dame's hero moment.
He's had one of these before. You remember it: Game 6 against the Houston Rockets in 2014's first round. The Blazers down one, 0.9 seconds left on the clock. He sprinted toward the inbounder, who got him the ball. Lillard turned, shot, drained it.
And here he was Tuesday night, bringing the ball up the court, with Paul George, the best perimeter defender in the NBA, on him like a hawk. Preternaturally calm, as if this were a November game instead of an emotion-filled playoff game, Dame dribbled past half-court. Doing as only one player in the NBA -- Stephen Curry -- has both the guts and the skills to do, Lillard, with George giving him just enough room, pulled up from the logo. George jumped, hand in Lillard's mug, but it was too late, and he'd given Lillard too much space. It was a 37-foot 3-pointer for the game, and for the series. The buzzer sounded just as the ball went through the hoop. It was an assassin moment from perhaps the game's best clutch scorer.
Who knows how far these Blazers will go? It feels like they have a relatively clear path to the Western Conference finals, whether that's through the San Antonio Spurs or the Denver Nuggets. The Blazers will be favored in that series regardless of opponent, I imagine. Then they would have to face either the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets. Yikes.
But no matter what happens for the rest of these playoffs, Tuesday's performance served as a reminder that Lillard isn't just an All-Star, or an All-NBA player. He's that rare type of superstar who can take over a game and a series. He's not Stephen Curry -- nobody on this earth is Stephen Curry -- but Damian Lillard is the closest that humanity has come to producing a second version of Stephen Curry.
I know the question will be that, if Lillard is a top-five player, who does he knock out? Truth is, I don't know. The NBA is loaded with superstars like never before. Is LeBron a top-five player still, even after the disastrous year he had in Los Angeles, the disinterest in defense and the effects of age? Would you rank Lillard higher than Anthony Davis, considering Davis has only twice played more than 68 games and Lillard has missed a total of 25 games in his seven-year NBA career? Would you rather have Lillard or James Harden on your team?
You can disagree. But if you're not considering Lillard as one of your final cuts -- as a serious part of the top-five player conversation -- well then I'm guessing you didn't only fall asleep for Tuesday night's game. I'm guessing you've fallen asleep for vast chunks of the past two NBA seasons.
Time to wake back up.
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