PORTLAND -- Damian Lillard wasn’t kidding nor exaggerating nor being boastful when he said he could keep up what has been an MVP-caliber level performance since the calendar turned over to 2023. He was just giving an honest self-assessment.
“I think the way I’ve been playing is necessary for us to keep our heads above water, at least be in a position to strike where we can make a run and be in the playoffs,” said Lillard. “But I do know for a fact that the level I’m playing at, I can finish the season this way.”
Those facts which Lillard already knew were evident Sunday night in his first game since the All-Star break.
The 6-3 guard in his 11th season out of Weber State scored a career and franchise high of 71 points while also setting new career and franchise highs in made threes to carry the Trail Blazers in a 131-114 victory versus the Rockets in front of a crowd of 19,215 Sunday night at Moda Center.
“We don’t get the chance to experience things like this a lot,” said head coach Chauncey Billups. “I’ve been around the league a long, long time and 71 and how efficient he was, that’s incredible.”
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The Trail Blazers are now 29-31 overall, good for 11th in the Western Conference, with 22 games to play.
Portland’s current place in the standings, which is one spot outside of qualifying for the play-in tournament, is the reason Lillard has entered the stretch run of the season with an uncommon level of focus, even by his own lofty standards.
“I think we’ve all got to have the right type of mentality,” said Lillard. “I think that’s the most important thing. To come into situations like this, what’s going on in your mind is the most important thing. I know that from experience. All of us have to come in saying ‘This is at the top of our priority list. I’ve got to get rest, I’ve got to be watching film, I’ve got to be doing everything to give our team a chance to be successful.’ We’ve got to be playing with a purpose, we have to have a mission.
“We just can’t take no for an answer. Regardless of what people on the outside saying, whose hurt, what’s going on, we got to be real militant coming out of this break. And if we not, it’s going to be real hard.”
So after having to sit out the Trail Blazers’ first game out of the break, which they would lose 133-116, as a precaution, he came out in his first game since the break and put up 41 points on 13-of-19 shooting from the field, 8-of-11 shooting from three and 7-of-7 shooting from the line. That in and of itself would be a great game for any NBA player, but that was only a half.
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The Rockets, as you might expect, decided to throw the kitchen sink at Lillard in the second half, and especially to start the third quarter. But rather than force the issues, he made the right plays, empowering his teammates even if it might blunt what already had the makings of a historic performance.
“I was super aggressive the whole first half then toward the end of the second quarter, they started to play different types of defenses,” said Lillard. “But I had my mind made up that I was going to keep attacking them regardless, I had it going. And in the third quarter they just sold out. I was bringing the ball up the first possession and I wasn’t even to halfcourt yet, they just ran a guy at me. When a team presents that type of defense, you got to just accept it and embrace it and that’s where you’ve got to depend on your teammates to take them out of that type of coverage.”
The Rockets did manage to hold Lillard to “just” nine points in the third quarter, though he would solve their defense in the fourth with 21 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the field, 4-of-7 shooting from three and 5-of-5 shooting from the line. He’d exit the game to a standing ovation with 44 seconds to play with 71 points and 13 three-pointers, both of which are new career highs for Lillard and franchise highs for the Trail Blazers. He also passed Dale Ellis and Reggie Theus to move up to 62nd in NBA history in scoring.
“I wasn’t like ‘Imma get 70 tonight,’” said Lillard, who also noted he was drug tested after Sunday’s game, the first time he’s had a post-game drug test. “I was playing to keep the lead instead of playing to score a bunch of points.”
Lillard’s 71 points are the most any player has scored in regulation this season. He is now one of just eight players in NBA history to score 70 points in a game. He is one of four players to make at least 13 three-pointers in a game. He joins Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant as the only players in league history with five or more games scoring at least 60 points. He’s the only player in NBA history to score at least 60 points and make at least 10 three-pointers. And there’s probably a few more impressive statistical milestones that he set Sunday night that no one is even aware of yet.
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But it wouldn’t have meant much, if anything, in a loss. And while putting up 71 points is wildly impressive, it’s not as though he can put up more than half his team’s total every night (though one could probably make a feasible argument to the contrary).
So while the number is nice, it’s the militant mentality that Lillard is approaching all of Portland’s games throughout the rest of the season that might be the difference between making the postseason and an early vacation.
“I think we’ve got to be unbreakable. That doesn’t mean it’s always going to go right or it’s always going to be fun. Whatever happens, we’ve just got to keep marching forward. We’re going to be in some dogfights, we’re going to be in some tough games. We can’t look at a game like tonight and say ‘Oh, we playing Houston, we supposed to win.’ It’s like, no, we’ve got to go out there, our back against the wall every night.
“I think our energy and the way we go about it has to be militant. We’ve got to go out there and be ready for battle, regardless of who it is or what’s supposed to happen. We need to win games and we not going to go undefeated but we’ve got to go out there and give ourselves a chance every night. I think our mentality and the way we approach it is something that’s going to give us a good chance to do that.”