PORTLAND, Ore. -- When you watch the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night, ignore the ripples of euphoria that occur each time Damian Lillard drills a 3-pointer launched from the crossroads of irrational and irresponsible. If your aim is to understand the connection Portland has with its best player, you're actually better off listening to the Blazers' home crowd in that brief half-second just before his feet leave the ground.
You can literally hear the crowd's collective intake of breath when Lillard sets his feet and pulls the ball back, almost as if fans are watching a giant wave build to a crest. Regardless of whether a make or a miss is unfolding, the anticipation is intoxicating because of what hangs in the balance: They're on the cusp of either another bonkers performance by Lillard, or another dispiriting playoff loss.
So far, Lillard hasn't scorched the Denver Nuggets with the kind of logic-defying, meme-generating superhero performance he did when he scored 50 and closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 3-pointer he launched roughly from the suburb of Beaverton in the playoffs' first round. But it hasn't stopped the world from wondering if he has another game like that in him; a conflict that has, in a larger sense, started to feel like a metaphor for Lillard's entire NBA career.
In his seventh season with the Blazers, Lillard has long been one of the league's most entertaining scorers -- lurking around the edges of superstardom, but never truly cementing his status there until he hit the shot that became the GIF Watched Round the World. As great as he has been, every big shot he's made has also left us wanting more, raising the stakes along with expectations. It is the blessing and the curse that every great NBA player faces as he tries to become basketball royalty, and some never make it.
The Blazers' second-round playoff series against the Denver Nuggets -- especially now, with Portland trailing 3-2 -- has been the epitome of that conflict. Denver has bumped him, grabbed him, shadowed him and annoyed him in the hopes of slowing him down, and the Nuggets have had varying degrees of success. Lillard is averaging 26.2 points per game this series, but he's shooting just 24.1 percent from beyond the arc. After making 26 3-pointers in five games against the Thunder, he has made just 11 in five games against the Nuggets.
"They're doing a good job," Lillard said in the locker room after Game 4. "They're making me see bodies, they're playing physical. Guys are chasing hard over the screens. They're not quitting on plays. There is not a lot of space out there."
Still, Lillard -- even when mired in a shooting slump -- remains the most compelling figure on the floor, and all eyes will be on him Thursday as Trail Blazers return home with their season on the brink. Portland needs a transcendent performance from him if it wants to live to fight another day. Then the Blazers will need another one in Game 7, or everything that came before it will feel slightly diminished. It's an endless dilemma.
But if a team is desperate for transcendence, Lillard is a great player to bet on.
"He is as hungry as anyone in that league to continue to prove himself," says Randy Rahe, Lillard's college coach at Weber State. "The guy will put a chip on his shoulder as much as anyone I've ever been around. And he's never going to be satisfied."
THE NEWS CONFERENCE question wasn't even directed at him, but Nikola Jokic couldn't help but interject. After the Nuggets won Game 4 on the road, Jokic listened to a reporter ask teammate Jamal Murray to explain how the Nuggets were keeping Lillard from going off. Half joking, but also half serious, Jokic jumped in to dismiss the premise of the question entirely. "Brother, he scored 30 points!" Jokic said, incredulously pointing at the stat sheet.
The idea that Lillard could score 30 points -- actually 28, if you want to fact-check Jokic -- but an observer could still feel like Denver did well to contain him captures the dilemma Lillard has faced this series: How much should he create plays for his teammates, and how much should he take over? Lillard makes his moments, makes us watch, when he takes over a game. Even a contested shot by Lillard might be preferable to a wide-open shot by someone else -- a fact he proved with his winner against the Thunder, derided later by Paul George as "a bad shot."
"Some shots, for me, are a good shot even if it's forced," Lillard said. "The way it might look to a person watching, they might look at it like, 'That's a tough shot.' But for me it's not a tough decision. I'm committed to those shots and I spend time working on them."
During the Nuggets series, you could see Lillard struggling over how aggressive he should be, in part because he hasn't always needed to take over -- Portland has played some of its best basketball when shooting guard CJ McCollum gets on a hot streak. When McCollum scored 41 in the Trail Blazers' 140-137 victory in Game 3, Lillard gushed over McCollum like a proud father.
"I always enjoy when CJ gets rolling because it's not just the fact that he's doing it for our team, it's the way it looks," Lillard said. "Smooth. Crossovers. Crafty. Tough shots. Just to watch it was great, as a teammate and a friend. Big shot after big shot. My job is to allow that. Let him keep rolling."
It's not just McCollum. In Game 4, midway through the third quarter, Lillard was at the scorers' table waiting to check back into the game when Seth Curry hit three consecutive 3-pointers during one frenetic stretch. Lillard was jumping up and down, clapping with infectious vigor, and when the Nuggets called a timeout after one of Curry's makes, Lillard came sprinting onto the court and delivered a flying chest bump that nearly knocked Curry over.
"I think that stuff is the reason you see the franchise in the position that it's in," Curry said. "He's always positive, he never steps on anyone's toes, and you want to help him win. He embraces this city and says he wants to stay here, and so the fans feel that, too. They've had some rough luck in the past with guys leaving in free agency, but he wants to stay and enjoys being the guy with a lot on his shoulders."
Lillard's loyalty to the city of Portland is something that comes up often when you ask fans here to explain why he means so much to them, even if the team's playoff glory ends with his buzzer-beating dagger against Oklahoma City, a cathartic moment for so many of them. (That wouldn't be nothing: You can buy a T-shirt with the image of him waving goodbye to the Thunder inside the Moda Center.)
It's not just that Lillard is fun to watch (though he certainly is) or that he has taken them further into the conference semifinals than they've been since 2000 (though he has). It's that they believe him when he says he enjoys living here. (He moved almost his entire extended family here from Oakland, California, where he was raised.) He has embraced some of the city's hipster quirks: He regularly goes roller-skating at a rink in Southeast Portland during the offseason. He entered into a partnership with Portland Public Schools to combat bullying, and he regularly makes appearances at schools to give speeches of encouragement. He also frequently gives shout-outs to city students on his social media for accomplishments such as an improved attendance streak.
"He's the kind of guy I think we all hope our kids will grow up to be," says Tara Bowen-Biggs, a lifelong Portland resident who is the co-host of the popular "Blazers Edge" podcast. "Any athlete can have a coat drive, and certainly some have done that here and it's been awesome. But Dame comes in and he wants to be a part of the community leadership without even blinking. He could have just gone about his business and been a star, but he decided he'd rather come here and make a difference."
AS IF A half-court buzzer-beater wasn't enough to stoke a frenzy with the Portland fan base, another outpouring of admiration occurred the next morning, after someone dug up a quote from an interview Lillard did with The Sporting News in 2017 in which he talked about whether he ever felt pressure on the basketball court. The quote was catnip to Portland's fans, and so widely shared across social channels that Warriors forward Kevin Durant cited it in a media conference as the "perfect" perspective.
"Pressure, nah. Fam, this is just playing ball," Lillard said then. "Pressure is the homeless man, who doesn't know where his next meal is coming from. Pressure is the single mom, who is trying to scuffle and pay her rent. We get paid a lot of money to play a game. Don't get me wrong, there are challenges. But to call it pressure is almost an insult to regular people."
After years of success and of failures, years of attempting to live up to outlandish expectations, not much seems to faze him (as evidenced by his nonchalant reaction atop the dogpile after ending the Thunder's season, which inspired memes and reaction stories for days).
That maturity, according to Rahe, is very much a product of Lillard's upbringing. "Damian is all about relationships and trusting people," he said. "That kid can read a phony a mile away. He knows. He's got great parents, and he had a wonderful AAU coach in Raymond Young, who taught him the right things. They taught him that you have to earn everything you get, and no one is going to hand anything to you. He's an old soul with old-school values, and when you're like that, you're able to adapt to anything."
Rahe remembers that he was a little worried that a kid from Oakland might be uncomfortable in Ogden, Utah, when he recruited Lillard to play for the Wildcats in 2007. Early in Lillard's freshman season, with the team on a streak of messy play, Rahe decided to push his players as hard as he could -- resorting to two practices a day in the middle of the season, the first one starting at 6 a.m. -- to see who would thrive and who would break. Several players, he says, contemplated quitting. Rahe's assistants warned him that if Lillard got fed up and left, it would be a massive blunder. "It was so early in his career, we didn't know how he was going to respond," Rahe said. Instead, Lillard embraced the challenge and thrived. The team did too, when it saw him emerge, even as just a freshman, as its leader.
Rahe says he felt he knew, in his gut, that Lillard was going to take -- and make -- that long-distance 3-pointer to close out the Thunder. Rahe and his wife, Laura, were watching the game on television, on the edge of their couch as the clock ticked down, and Laura was baffled as to why Lillard wasn't trying to beat George off the dribble and get to the basket. Rahe, though, suspected what was coming.
"When he was coming up the court, I could just see it in his eyes," Rahe said. "He was shooting it so well, I just knew he was going to pull. It was so fitting for that shot to go in because of how he played the whole game. That's the way it should have ended. I've seen him do some incredible things, but watching that game, I was actually in awe."
The most pressing question now is whether Lillard has another performance like that in him. Even if he is impervious to pressure, the stakes, once again, have been raised. Asked Tuesday night after the Trail Blazers got blown out by the Nuggets whether it was possible to put up 50 again, even with Denver putting so much emphasis on stopping him, Lillard smiled, knowing his answer was setting the stage for either more magic or more disappointment.
"I've had big games against tough defenses when I was getting a lot of attention," Lillard said. "With our season on the line and knowing we have to win two games in a row -- you never know."