2021 Playoffs: West First Round | Nuggets vs. Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard's 'superhuman' effort not enough in Game 5

Despite another memorable postseason performance, Portland's superstar is one loss away from being deprived of a trip to The Finals.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Damian Lillard was a dazzling force in Game 5, scoring 55 points. But his Blazers lost and are on the cusp of elimination.

After witnessing his basketball masterpiece spread over four quarters and two overtime periods and too many head-shaking big buckets to count, everyone went home Tuesday with this about Damian Lillard: 

He took your oxygen away.

And he’s two elimination games, if he’s lucky, of going away for the summer again after Denver’s 147-140 2OT victory in Game 5.

Lillard was truly brilliant for the Portland Trail Blazers when it counted in Game 5 against the Nuggets and there was nothing Denver could do. Well, actually, the Nuggets could’ve tossed a double team his way near the end of regulation and the first overtime, but for some reason developed amnesia about Dame’s rich history in these situations.

Did they not see what he did against the Rockets in 2014? Did somebody steal their copy of the tape of his classic shot and puppet wave against Oklahoma City in 2019? Hell, did the Nuggets already forget how he burst everyone in the bubble last summer?

With the clock ticking, Austin Rivers took his lumps when Dame swished a 30-footer. And Michael Porter Jr. took his when Dame swished a 30-footer. And Nikola Jokic took his when Dame swished a 30-footer. And then there was Dame’s 30-foot bank shot against … who was guarding him on that play again? Doesn’t matter.

His entire career seems to be a melding of these two stark realities, a superstar with the uncommon poise to do what others can’t in tense situations, and a superstar who never gets a chance to play on the ultimate stage when the light is at its whitest and brightest.

That first reality has been our pleasure, the second one has been his pain.

“Superhuman” is how Nuggets coach Michael Malone described him.

Despite Damian Lillard's record-setting performance, Denver wins to take 3-2 series lead.

Lillard went nuclear with a playoff career night on the Nuggets, dropping 55 points on just 24 shots, helped by an NBA playoff-record 12 from deep. He had only one turnover in 51 minutes and executed a clean open-court strip of Rivers and then an assist to CJ McCollum for a key basket to help Portland force OT. He somehow resisted the urge to customarily tap his wrist (you know what that means). Maybe it was because he was too tired; he grabbed his shorts at each timeout in OT and passed up shots on Portland’s final three possessions.

And he probably didn’t do the signature wrist-tap because none of those shots came in a winning effort, so in the big picture, since Lillard is desperately searching for the one prize that still eludes him, there was nothing to celebrate.

“It’s a shame we wasted one of the best performances you’ll ever see,” said McCollum.

The Nuggets are now up 3-2 which brings to mind the other, less savory definition of Dame Time: His always-expiring shelf life in the postseason.

Here in his ninth season, he — and we — could be deprived of these epic efforts in The Finals once again. Dame has never taken that trip, though no fault of his own. Scan his history and you realize he never had the most qualified team in any postseason. The closest was three years ago when Portland reached the Western Conference finals. The Blazers played the Warriors without Kevin Durant, but Dame was uncharacteristically normal in that series and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were too much as Golden State swept Portland.

Even in his latest and greatest playoff game, Dame shot 6-for-8 in the two overtime periods … while his Blazers teammates combined for 1-for-14. Dame scored Portland’s final 17 points.

With Lillard and the playoffs, you must enjoy him while he lasts — which typically isn’t too long, maybe four weeks at best.

Damian Lillard speaks to the media following a tough Game 5 loss.

Can something dramatic happen and the Blazers win the next two and steal the series from the Nuggets? It’s possible. They did so in 2019, winning a Game 7 in Denver. This time, though, Jokic is wearing big-boy Kia MVP-sized pants, so he’ll be a problem.

The neutral basketball fan with no skin in the game can dream, though. They can picture Dame shooting his way to the top of the heap, beyond the Nuggets and then to the next round and the next to arrive at the NBA’s pearly gates. If you have even an ounce of sympathy for one of the greatest clutch players of this generation, you’d settle for that.

When he’s running out of time on the clock, Dame is at his finest, sinking step-back 3s and stealing hearts on the other bench. Yet in this playoff series, like others in his past, there’s another clock that’s working against Dame. In each separate instance, based on history, you have a good idea how both will end.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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