OAKLAND — He arrived at the Western Conference finals wearing the jersey of the Oakland A’s, who play right next door at Oakland Coliseum, just a five-minute drive from where he was born.
Damian Lillard paused and signed a few autographs before entering Oracle Arena, because he is a man of the people, and these are his people. None of them mention that, in their hearts, they’re rooting for him to lose this playoff series, and so it goes unspoken, a truce in a sense. For this fleeting moment, they’re Lillard fans, until the ball goes up.
And then it’s all for Stephen Curry, all night long.
There is a competition within the competition between the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers, and it is the battle for the affection of Oakland. There is Lillard, the pride of the Brookfield Village neighborhood, who has blossomed into a bonafide star with the Blazers. And then there’s Curry, the symbol of a basketball renaissance here, who has raised the profile of Oakland the last several years.
Now you see why "The Town" is a bit conflicted. A bit.
The conference championship may well hinge on the performance of these All-NBA guards. Game 1 was fairly lopsided, both in terms of the teams -- Warriors 116, Blazers 94 -- and the two principles.
Lillard struggled Tuesday and appeared whipped, physically if not mentally, no doubt from a grueling seven-game semifinals that just wrapped up 48 hours earlier. He missed 8 of his 12 shots, had seven turnovers and, in a rarity for him, he was a non-factor for Portland. He’s a combined 7-for-29 in his last two playoff games. Meanwhile, Curry rolled, dropping 36 points and the Blazers along with them.
And so, this is the verdict: Portland cannot hope to stretch this series beyond four games, five tops, without the max from Lillard. He obviously means that much. Curry, now working without the comforts of his injured co-star Kevin Durant for the second straight game (and maybe without Durant for another two games), needs to keep his skills elevated to prevent suspense from encroaching on the series.
The Warriors are well aware of what Lillard has done to them in the past; he has averaged more points against the hometown team (27 points per game) than any in his career likely because of provincial pride. Yet Golden State is also aware that he has yet to beat them in any game or series of significance.
“He’s one of the best guards in this league and carries a chip on his shoulder and it has (worked) well for him in his career,” said Warriors forward Draymond Green. “A special talent. I know he’s excited to be back home playing in the last year at Oracle. So it’s special for him but it don’t mean nothing to us. We’ve got to come out here and try to stop him. A tall task.”
While the East Bay has given birth to its share of NBA stars -- Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Jason Kidd and Gary Payton chief among them -- Lillard is still freshly active and refreshingly loyal. The connection between him and Oakland remains unwavering despite fame and distance and the fact it’s his job and desire to shock the world in the next few weeks.
He played at St. Joseph Notre Dame in Alameda and then finished at Oakland High School. A thick section of fans at Oracle Wednesday were wrapped in Blazers gear and made their preference clear, most of whom were either from the old neighborhood or family members.
His high school coach, Damon Jones, is a Warriors season ticket holder, and Jones said: “Nobody bought me a drink tonight.”
The coach added, playfully: “They gave me a hard time. When the Warriors scored, they wanted to turn around and slap five but then caught themselves at the last minute.”
Jones remembers Lillard as being a promising and quick guard who picked up the nuances of the game rapidly.
“He was very personable for someone his age, a solid teammate,” Jones said. “He still keeps in touch with all of his former teammates. It’s a brotherhood and he’s the leader. He’s always trying to be a positive influence on everyone around here.”
Lillard returns every summer to give away backpacks with school supplies and funded the renovation of the Oakland High gym. He’s a familiar sight around town in the offseason and always approachable, and that loyalty and devotion doesn’t go unnoticed.
“People here respect him,” said Raymond Young, Lillard’s AAU coach. “When he comes here to play, people here say they’re going to clap for Damian but cheer for the Warriors. Only he can get that kind of reaction. His loyalty comes from his family. His mother and father were no-problem parents. They let us coach him. He was a joy to be around. Still is.”
Lillard is even more endearing because he comes from humble beginnings and is self-made. Both of his youth coaches are admittedly shocked by his impact in the NBA. He wound up at Weber State. He wasn’t highly recruited by the big schools as even nearby Cal-Berkeley came late.
“But if he goes there,” Young said, “does all this happen?”
Lillard is revered in Portland, who is loyal to the Blazers in an age of transient stars and has never wanted to play anywhere else. Perhaps this has cost him some visibility, with a majority of his games tipping off at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time. It’s a price he’s more than willing to pay.
This is Lillard's first foray into the conference finals, which represents some new and deserved shine for him.
A layer of that invisibility was peeled off in these playoffs where Lillard has come up massive. His shot from nearly 40 feet that eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, and his follow-up "bye-bye" wave made the moment iconic. Then he followed up with a strong Western Conference semifinal against the Denver Nuggets. Although as that series crept to the conclusion, Lillard shot just 3-for-17 in that Game 7 ... and followed that up with a 4-for-12 Tuesday, proof that he might be gassed — and also that the Warriors cooked up a defensive game plan specifically for him.
“Obviously it’s a little bit difficult physically and emotionally just because you’re excited about being in the Western Conference finals,” Lillard said. “You come straight here from Denver and get ready for the best team in the league. But once we lace our shoes and put our uniforms on, it’s fair and square. You got to go out there and handle your business.
"They did a good job defensively and even when I was trying to find (teammates), they were getting deflections. They were making me play in a crowd. I thought they were successful at that … in this first game.”
But his toughest task of all might be upstaging Curry, particularly here in Oakland. While Lillard has flourished through much of the postseason, Curry by comparison has been mild, especially by his standards. The missed layups, a famously flubbed dunk attempt and sporadic 3-point shooting was unsightly.
After Durant limped off the floor in Game 5 of the West semis, Curry felt a sense of urgency and a flush of greatness. He buried the Rockets with a pair of epic fourth quarters, then kept the faucet running Tuesday. The Blazers couldn’t limit or at least slow him anywhere on the floor, especially from the 3-point line, where Curry was a sizzling 9-for-15. In his last six quarters, Curry has scored 69 points with 13-for-24 shooting on 3-pointers.
“I know what I’m capable of doing on the floor," Curry said, "and the situation calls for me to be more aggressive and hopefully that will continue. It’s nice to see the ball go in. I want to maintain that. I didn’t shoot well for 4 1/2 games the last series. Every game is different. You have to reestablish yourself and that’s my perspective no matter how I play.”
Curry didn’t arrive wearing the baseball jersey of the home team, and if anything has been spotted at San Franciso Giants games across the Bay, where the Warriors will call home starting next season. But don’t get anything twisted. Curry’s bond with Oakland, developed over time, is genuine and real for someone born and bred a country away in Charlotte, and the feeling is mutual.
The tug of war for the heartstrings of Oakland is subtle between the pair of franchise players on the floor in this playoff series. Call it a draw from the standpoint of whom the fans here respect and appreciate. There’s enough love to be shared by both.
Yet in the basketball sense, this series is on the verge of being owned by the one wearing the jersey that reps Oakland. Curry has more momentum and better teammates, and Durant is on deck.
Oakland, therefore, will indeed cheer for one of its own, for Lillard. But the way this series and these playoffs are going, "The Town" is anxious to pop bottles with Curry once again -- at the usual place and time -- one last time.
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