Damian Lillard has taken a long road to NBA superstardom. Well, let me rephrase that: He’s taken a long road to being universally acknowledged as a superstar. He’s actually been one for a while. But it wasn’t until recently, maybe as recent as last season, that the masses became fully aware of his powers.
Why? You know the small-market story. He plays in Portland. He’s never been to the Finals. Never won a scoring title or an MVP. After Lillard missed two late free throws (we’ll get to the shock of this in a second) that could’ve won a crucial game for Portland on Saturday, he got into a back and forth with Paul George and Patrick Beverley, both of whom, Lillard was quick to remind, have been sent home in the playoffs courtesy of a buzzer-beating Dame-winner.
“Keep switching teams,” Lillard messaged George. “Running from the grind.”
Lillard has never run from the grind of trying to lift a small-market team to championship heights. He hasn’t demanded a trade out of Portland, as George did in Indiana, nor has he lobbied to get half his team traded elsewhere to bring in another star, as LeBron James did with the baby Lakers. He’s stayed on the long road. The hard road. And it’s cost him in the grander conversation of the greatest players in the world, of which Lillard is definitely one, even if his name is still rarely mentioned with the LeBrons and Kevin Durants and Steph Currys of the world.
When you really think about it, LeBron and Curry are the only active players who have single-handedly lifted a franchise higher than Lillard has lifted the Blazers. LeBron did it in his first stint with the Cavs, taking a rag-tag group to the Finals. But when he knew he needed better teammates to win, he left. Lillard has never done that. He’s trying the Curry route of winning a title for the organization that drafted you, without any outside superstar reinforcements joining the party.
Curry’s 2015 title with Golden State serves as Lillard’s benchmark. That was before Durant turned the Warriors into a super-team, back when Curry had a really good running mate in a young Klay Thompson, as Lillard has with C.J. McCollum, but no fellow All-Stars (at that time) to lean on.
Lillard has it even harder because he doesn’t have a Draymond Green. The Blazers have never been a championship-level defense during Lillard’s tenure, and not having a playmaking four-man of Green’s caliber, a guy who can punish teams for high blitzes and double teams as a release valve leading 4-on-3 half-court advantages, has forced Lillard to try to do more himself. He got a hard lesson against Jrue Holiday and the Pelicans a few years ago. One man can’t do it all. But Lillard can come pretty damn close.
This a guy who can now score 40 points and hit nine or 10 3-pointers in his sleep. He’s a guy who can turn a 2-for-8 first half into a second-half explosion with a simple flip of the proverbial switch, almost as if he picks a point every game where he just decides enough is enough. And then he turns into a blow torch. Just because he feels like it.
He makes it look so easy to run off a string of off-the-dribble 30-footers that we have come to expect it. We’re shocked, in fact, when he doesn’t do it. When Lillard shorted those two free throws on Saturday, with the Blazers trailing the Clippers by one and 18.6 seconds to play, it was one of those rub-your-eyes moments. Did I really just see that?
This is where Curry got in his back-to-back MVP seasons, where we were no longer surprised when he would make shots of such ridiculous difficulty that they would’ve seemed impossible before he normalized them. It’s like James harden putting up 50. LeBron and his triple-doubles. Luka Doncic is doing the same thing right now, lulling us into a belief that he will just continue to play at this level every single game for the next 20 years. And he probably will.
Only the greats make us expect greatness, and then deliver on those expectations game after game, season after season. Even for the best players on earth, it is not even close to normal the shots that Lillard can create and make with such consistency, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t lull me into believing these stunts he pulls are routine. I can turn on a game late in the third quarter and see the Blazers down 20, and I have absolutely no doubt that Lillard — and to be fair, McCollum, too — will have them back in the lead at some point. Maybe in about five minutes.
So, yeah, Lillard missed a couple of free throws on Saturday. And the Blazers lost. And their postseason prospects became more perilous. And I was, and still am, utterly shocked. All of which only reinforced the absolute stone-cold fact that Lillard is in the highest echelon of superstars, where the margin for error is zero. Where nothing other than greatness is an option.