Damian Lillard always shoulders a lot of responsibility, even in the best of times, and with so many of his teammates out with injuries, he’s been asked to do even more.
And as usual, he’s shown himself up to the task.
The 6-3 point guard in his ninth season out of Weber State scored the last six points of regulation and added yet another buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer to his substantial highlight reel in a 123-122 victory versus the Chicago Bulls Saturday night at the United Center.
“It felt great,” said Lillard. “We’ve had some tough losses lately. We’ve been dealing with injuries and a lot of tough situations for our team, but we’ve been able to battle and stay together. We haven’t made excuses. We haven’t felt bad for ourselves. Each guy that has been put into the rotation that wasn’t in the rotation before has stepped up and been ready to play. And without those guys being prepared and having the mentality that they’ve had, we wouldn’t be in the position for a game-winner to happen or to win any of these games.”
The Trail Blazers are now 10-8 overall and 5-3 on the road this season.
It didn’t seem as though the Trail Blazers would need to rely on the clock striking “Dame Time” in order to get the win in the first half of Saturday’s contest.
In fact, the second quarter presented the very rare occasions in which, rather than coming apart with Lillard on the bench, the Trail Blazers actually build a substantial lead. After trailing by two at the end of the first quarter, Portland went on an 18-2 run to take 54-46 lead with 4:29 to play in the first half.
Between Gary Trent Jr. scoring 10 points on 3-of-3 shooting from the field and the Bulls converting on just two field goals in the final 10 minutes of the half, the Trail Blazers outscored Chicago 32-19 in the second quarter to take a 64-53 lead into the intermission, all with Lillard playing less than four and a half minutes in the quarter.
Portland gave four points of the lead back in the third quarter, but still held a seven-point lead going into the fourth. Though this time around, when it came time for Lillard to sit to start the fourth as he usually does to start the second, the results were much less encouraging.
Granted, the slide started at the end of the third while Lillard was still in the game, but it exacerbated significantly in his absence. Portland was outscored 28-10 from the 2:06 mark in the third to the 7:58 mark in the fourth, turning what had at one time been a 14-point lead into two-point deficit.
The teams would take turns holding slim leads for much of the next five minutes, though a 7-0 Bulls run, capped by a Zach LaVine three, gave the home team a five-point lead with 32 seconds to play. Robert Covington ended the mini-run with a layup off a Lillard dish, but with time running out, Portland had to foul Coby White on the ensuing possession, pushing the lead back to five with 11.5 seconds to play.
Though everyone in the NBA knows what time that is.
Lillard did his part, hitting a 37-footer off a Covington assist to cut the lead to 8.9 seconds to play, though someone else would have to make a play in order to set up Lillard’s winner.
“I knew that they was going to try to deny me and be real physical, so I just popped back toward halfcourt for Roco,” said Lillard. “He picked me up, I just wanted to get (the defender) on his heals and get a clean look and if I missed it, that probably would have been game. But it had been feeling good coming off my hands all night, and I made that one.”
And this time, it was Trent Jr, who had already stepped up on the offensive end starting in place of CJ McCollum, scoring 18 points on 6-of-14 shooting in 36 minutes. But tying up LaVine for a jump ball with 6.2 seconds to play, and then tipping the ball out to Covington, who almost lost the ball before getting just enough of a touch to get the ball to Lillard, goes down as his most important contribution.
“The whole sequence, between, Dame’s really deep three, the aggressiveness of Garry Trent to get the ball, the timing to win the tip against Zach LaVine was special,” said Terry Stotts. “To come up with a loose ball, and then to win the shot. The whole sequence of events was quite remarkable to say the least.”
With the ball in his hands above the three-point line with fourth four seconds to play. Lillard took one dribble toward the baseline, faded away with Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen giving chase and contest and released the shot with enough time to beat the buzzer but with not enough time to allow for the Bulls to get another possession.
“GT been playing great for us,” said Lillard. “He went for the jumpball, smart play. Then he went and won the jumpball against probably the most athletic player in the league. Roco made a hustle play, got it to me and then after that, it was up to me to just get a quality shot up. I had a big on me, got some space, hit a stepback and that was game.”
Lillard led all scorers with 44 points on 15-of-26 shooting from the field, 8-of-17 shooting from three and 6-of-6 shooting from the line to go with nine assists, fife rebounds and a steal.
Enes Kanter dominated the paint and the glass throughout Saturday game, finishing with 22 points and 11 rebounds in 33 minutes. Trent Jr. added four steals and two assists go to with his 18 points. Covington, playing for the first time since suffering a concussion versus the Knicks earlier in the week, added nine points, four assists and four steals.
Markkanen led the Bulls with 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting. LaVine added 26 points and White contributed 20.
Next up, the Trail Blazers reach the midway point of a six-game trip by facing the Bucks in Milwaukee in the first game of a back-to-back Monday night. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 p.m.