Lillard saw Blazers' success coming

It's hard to say exactly what Damian Lillard saw. Ronnie Price was up in his grill as soon as he crossed half court. The Los Angeles Lakers needed a steal more than a stop, so Price had no choice but to try to harass Lillard into a turnover. He came up on him so quickly, though, Lillard was able to scoot past him and into the lane. The Lakers big men rotated, leaving Portland center Chris Kaman wide open. Lillard found him, Kaman scored.

Somewhere in there, Lillard says he saw something. What, only he really knows. But on the next play whatever he saw came to life in big, bright colors. Price picked him up high again. Lillard accelerated. The bigs came over again -- but not nearly fast enough -- and Lillard threw home the kind of ferocious dunk that makes you wince more than applaud.

Lakers forward Jordan Hill, who had tried in vain to challenge the dunk at the rim, asked the referee why he called a foul so late. Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge turned to Hill and said, "Because he was mesmerized."

By now, the Blazers (30-8) are used to Lillard morphing into "Reggie Miller" in the fourth quarter of games. Lillard has a league-high 232 fourth-quarter points this season. Fifty-eight of those points have come in clutch time (the last five minutes of a game that's within five points).

"Even if I've seen it before, it still surprises me," Portland forward Nicolas Batum said. "I mean, he's a point guard. He's not a big man, he's not 6-8. He's a point guard driving the lane in traffic and dunking like that."

Lillard says he knew the lane would be open on the play by the way the Lakers played him the previous time down. He knew they'd change it up, ever so slightly the next time down, because he'd burned them with that pass to Kaman. They'd be a step slow as the thought of what happened before replayed in their minds.

"It was the perfect amount of space," Lillard said.

Listening to him describe that vision was like listening to a great pitcher explain how he sets up batters. He saw it -- whatever it is the great ones see -- before anyone else. Before it even happened. Before it could happen.

It's a theme with Lillard. Before the Trail Blazers drafted him sixth overall in 2012, he told his agent, Aaron Goodwin, he thought Portland would be the best fit.

"I thought this team had a lot of pieces that would make a good team," he said. "And that I could come play point guard here. It's pretty much worked out exactly how I thought it would work out."

Keep in mind that at the time Portland was coming off a 28-38 season and a midseason coaching change from Nate McMillan to Kaleb Canales. The Trail Blazers had Aldridge, Wesley Matthews and Batum, but they were younger, skinnier, rawer versions of the players they are now.

Plus, the Blazers had already drafted a point guard, Nolan Smith, in the first round the previous season. And they still had Raymond Felton and Jonny Flynn. And they were still kicking themselves for trading back in the 2005 draft and missing out on Deron Williams and Chris Paul in the process. There wasn't exactly a ton of room in the backcourt, or a great legacy of point guards in Portland.

And yet somehow Lillard saw it. What he could become in Rip City. What the team could do. How the parts could fit together one day. The spacing Matthews and Batum would create. The way he and Aldridge could play together in the pick-and-roll sets. He saw it all before he was drafted.

So now what does he see? That's the question everyone around the league asks about the Blazers now. Portland was the first team to win 30 games this season. They're currently second in the Western Conference behind Golden State. They have two legit franchise cornerstones in Lillard and Aldridge, depth, veterans, elite defenders. All the hallmarks of teams that contend for titles in this league. But are they there yet? Are they truly elite?

"Last year in the playoffs, when we played as well as we did, it just felt like we were one of those teams that could do it," Lillard said.

"Last year we were a young team that was kind of new to winning. This year we're one of those teams. We perform at a high level consistently. We win without depending on offense. We play better, we get along, we're confident. We've won 30 games. I think we just have to keep the same mentality that we have and remember that we are an elite team."

That question is always something of a riddle. You have to win to be considered a winner. You actually have to make that leap before people think you're capable of it. Or, you just have to have vision. See it, say it, back it up later.

"Last year we were a young team that was kind of new to winning. This year we're one of those teams. We perform at a high level consistently. We win without depending on offense. We play better, we get along, we're confident." Damian Lillard

"He'll say anything that he feels is true," Aldridge said of Lillard. "And then he'll do anything to make it true."

The reason this all worked for Portland as quickly as it did is that the Trail Blazers saw it, too. What Lillard could do for this team, the way the pieces could all fit together one day.

"Honestly, the thing I'm most proud of is the discipline we had with Dame," general manager Neil Olshey said. "We didn't bring anyone in. We didn't go after any free-agent point guards to buy him some time. We drafted him, we believed in him, and we just said, 'This is going to be his ball. He's going to be our guy.'"

They eventually got rid of Felton, Flynn and Smith and brought in Price (yes, the same Price he dunked on the other night in L.A.) to mentor him.

"There was nothing that I could teach a guy that was already that gifted," Price said. "I was just there to help him. He had the tools long before he got to the league."

That vision didn't translate into wins right off the bat. The Blazers finished 33-49 in Lillard's rookie season, though that's a little misleading since they lost their final 13 games. But everyone involved had seen enough to know what was around the corner.

"We still had a good year," Batum said. "After the All-Star break we still had the eighth spot. Then we had a lot of injuries at the end. So we knew the next season we would be OK."

After the season, Aldridge was a little antsy. He was 27 and ready to win something meaningful. But he told management he would be patient for at least another year.

"After a losing season like that, I was trying to go win somewhere," Aldridge said. "They told me to give them a year and I did."

Olshey did two things when Aldridge told him that. He asked him what kind of center he thought he'd play well with, and he asked him to trust him.

"L.A. was open-minded," Olshey said. "He gave [coach] Terry Stotts a chance on the floor and he gave me a chance off the floor."

Portland signed Roy Hibbert to an offer sheet in free agency, but the Pacers matched it. When the Pacers matched, Portland signed J.J. Hickson to a one-year deal. The next summer they traded Jeff Withey for Robin Lopez, a defensive-minded rim protector who became expendable when New Orleans needed to clear cap room to sign Tyreke Evans. It was a footnote to a three-team deal. But having a center like Lopez finally allowed Aldridge to thrive in his natural spot at power forward. That allowed his pick-and-roll game with Lillard to blossom.

"The whole team has changed now," Aldridge said.

Did Lillard see all of that way back when? Can he see how this all plays out? Does he know whether the Blazers are truly elite?

There's that riddle again. You have to do something before people think you can. You have to leap before anyone knows whether you'll make it. Or, maybe you just have to have vision.