One of the more endearing NBA trademarks is Damian Lillard’s two-finger tap on the wrist after he drops a game-winning jumper on someone who commits two basketball sins: Forgetting to properly take note of Lillard … and the time.
That wrist-tap signals “Dame Time” and it gets a rise at Moda Center while uplifting the Portland Trail Blazers, who once again are in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase. Portland mostly thrives on the flow of Lillard, its All-Star guard who is one of the top five most talented Blazers ever and is the unquestioned leader of the club the last half decade.
But in a league where stars are often measured by their deep playoff runs, Lillard checks his watch and knows he’s behind schedule. In his previous six seasons, the Blazers have just two West semifinals berths (2014, 2016). Last season, they were first-round fodder for the New Orleans Pelicans after a 49-win season, becoming the first No. 3 seed to fall that early since 2001.
It’s not all his fault. though. In today’s game, the Blazers perhaps lack the multiple stars needed to sip championship champagne. Still, it was a crushing experience for Lillard as he shot 35 percent, averaged four turnovers per game and was spooked by Jrue Holiday all series.
Lillard beat himself up over the exit, saying it took “a few months” before his head stopped spinning.
“I’m not going to lie, I pouted for a while,” Lillard said. “Watched TV and they were talking crap about me left and right.”
With Portland again poised to finish in the top four in the West -- helped by a successful recent Eastern Conference road trip -- Lillard and the Blazers field virtually the same team … but with a different swagger and mindset.
“People are sleeping on us,” he said, then paused and added softly, “let them.”
Slights just ‘wood on the fire’
Lillard, 28, was expansive, thoughtful, direct and once again perky in a recent interview about both the Blazers and his being the face of the franchise. And make no mistake, it’s a role he tightly embraces. Lillard’s goal is to spend his entire career with one team, and a secondary goal is to convince free agents that Portland is a great place to play (and he’d be an ideal running mate).
Portland does dote on the Blazers and many ex-players eventually retire there long after they’re done playing. As for Lillard, his teammates are warm to him, noting his leadership and support even though tough times, and of course marveling at his talent and preparation.
I’m one of the best players in the NBA. Tell me how I’m not? That’s not pride talking. That’s facts."
On Friday, Lillard passed LaMarcus Aldridge for No. 2 on the club’s all-time scoring list (trailing only Clyde Drexler). The outside world once swirled with rumors of a beef with Aldridge, now a seven-time All-Star who bolted for San Antonio in free agency after two seasons with Lillard (2013-15).
“That’s unfortunate, how that perception played out,” Lillard said. “It’s funny. We have more of a relationship now when we’re not teammates than when we were teammates. That’s not a negative thing. We never had an issue as teammates.
“We never had an argument. It was just outside noise and we never took the time to communicate and say `this ain’t real, I don’t feel that way.’ But it’s typical around the NBA, every time two good teammates are paired together they try to turn them against each other, comparing them and all that stuff instead of letting them be teammates.
“Now I’ve played more years without him than with him. When he left I was put in a different role of leadership, responsibility, redemption and everything had to go up. Him leaving Portland allowed me getting to No. 2 to happen. Had he stayed, he would probably be No. 1 (on the scoring list) and I wouldn’t have the chance to pass him until year 15. Everything happened for a reason.”
Lillard is grateful for the franchise because it was sold on him from the jump. In high school, Lillard wasn’t heavily recruited and wound up at Weber State, which didn’t offer the big-school exposure advantages. Yet the Blazers drafted him No. 6 in 2012 and placed the ball in his hands, where it has been ever since.
“I led the league in minutes as a rookie,” he said. “Maybe if they hadn’t given me that opportunity and freedom to have the opportunity to be me, then maybe we wouldn’t be here together. I owe a lot of people, our coaching staff and organization to allow me to do this from day one.”
Lillard has been an example of durability and determination, never missing a game his first three seasons as he has not missed more than nine games per season since then. Along the way, he has represented himself and Portland well, a refreshing change for a franchise that endured the “Jail Blazers” regime and felt robbed by the constant injuries of Greg Oden, the former No. 1 overall pick chosen ahead of Kevin Durant in 2007.
Lillard, now a four-time All-Star, became good quickly and fun to watch. The 6-foot-3 combo guard is never bashful about launching 30 footers or challenging bigger defenders at the rim.
That said, he often bristles at what he perceives as a lack of respect -- perhaps borne of playing on the West Coast and in a small-market town -- which is often taken the wrong way. What some may see as whining is a player with a sense of pride who wants his just due. Lillard has never been an All-Star starter. Last season was Lillard’s inaugural one on the All-NBA first team, the honor coming at the expense of Russell Westbrook -- who averaged a triple-double and was named Kia MVP in 2016-17.
“I’m one of the best players in the NBA,” said Lillard, unwilling to limit his status to point guards. “Tell me how I’m not? That’s not pride talking. That’s facts.”
“I have a chip on my shoulder for how I had to get here and where I come from, and also how I’m viewed. Sometimes I’m delusional about it. I might be wrong when I make myself think certain stuff. But it works for me. Every little thing I use as wood on the fire.”
Sting from ouster still looms
All that’s separating Lillard from a seat at the table of greatness is Portland playing in late May or early June. Plenty will depend on the recovery of backcourt mate CJ McCollum (popliteus strain), who could be out a week. While the Blazers are deep, there’s no one player who can assume McCollum’s role.
“You’re concerned for him as a friend, first and foremost, and he’s so big for our team that you get concerned for that,” Lillard said. “We have guys who can make up for the scoring by committee, but you also take them away from their roles. We’re going to have to lean on each other a little bit more.”
While the Golden State Warriors are once again strong favorites, they’re not unbeatable. Everyone else in the West brings a flaw. The Blazers added offensive-minded big man Enes Kanter last month, and he’s been somewhat impressive since. Kanter should fortify Portland’s frontcourt with Jusuf Nurkic and bring better balance to a team that long relied on Lillard and McCollum.
“Last year we got so hot and peaked really early,” said Lillard, mentioning their 13-game win streak after the All-Star break, “and I was like, ‘man, I don’t know how long any team other than the Warriors a few years ago can just play at that level for two months straight before you have a rough spot.’ I thought about that last year when we went on that long winning streak and beating a bunch of good teams. I would’ve loved for this streak to come right before the playoffs and going into the playoffs. This time we’re playing good basketball but it’s not like everything is going our way. I like the balance of it.”
After beating the Warriors by 22 last month, the Blazers went East and beat the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and narrowly lost to the Toronto Raptors. What did Lillard take from that?
I know that I’m going to bounce back. I’m going to answer the call. It was just my turn and our turn as a group to go through it, our turn to go through that devastating time and it’s about how you respond to it."
“The mentality we’re capable of having over a long period of time,” he said. “Going into the trip we had to be sharp one game at a time and do the little things. The focus was there. The fact that it was a long trip and we knew what we were in for, it allowed us to get there mentality. We have to have that same approach as we go forward to the playoffs.”
For Lillard, the burn from last season’s playoff exit won’t truly be erased until the Blazers take the next step this spring.
“I had a lot of people I could lean on in situations like that,” he said. “I’m tight with my mom, my dad, my brother, grandmother. They were all like, ‘Hey, a lot of people saying that about you can never be in your shoes.’ A lot of people who have something to say all the time, they’re the same ones who can never be in my position. They can never know what it’s like to have all these people coming down on you in a big moment and come up short.
“Not only can I deal with doing that, I know that I’m going to bounce back. I’m going to answer the call. It was just my turn and our turn as a group to go through it, our turn to go through that devastating time and it’s about how you respond to it. We just want to get back to the playoffs and give ourselves a chance.”
Lillard and the Blazers find themselves in the thick of would-be Warriors-slayers out West. And everyone is confident in late March. The bold truth isn’t revealed until a series starts and every possession counts. What then?
Lillard is anxious to find out, although he likes what his hunch is saying to him, and what he reminds his teammates almost daily:
“We got to go out there and fight.”
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