Last night — after Dame pulled up from 37 feet, drilled the shot, finished off a 50-point game, sent the Rose Garden into apoplexy, waved goodbye to Russell Westbrook, made me yelp so loud that my roommate woke up, inadvertently created a timeless meme, and sent the Portland Trail Blazers into the Western Conference semifinals — there was only one obvious parallel for sports media to make. So they all made it. Almost exactly five years ago, on May 2, 2014, a 23-year-old Damian Lillard had what could have been his career moment, hitting the game-winning, series-clinching 0.9 shot against the Houston Rockets.
Watch it now and see the way that Lillard spins on his heels, half in disbelief, when the shot goes down. Then wait for his reaction after the mob around him has broken, the way he turns to the crowd and screams something about this being his “fucking shit,” defiant ecstasy in his eyes. The Blazers had, as commentator Mike Tirico howled on ESPN, won a playoff series for the first time in 14 years, carried there by “the kid with the big guts,” a second-year guard out of a small school in somewhere called Ogden, Utah. Defiance seemed about right; screaming at someone seemed appropriate.
And then the Blazers got their asses handed to them over the next five games by the San Antonio Spurs. They limped out of the playoffs and into a half-decade of big ideas, false starts, and occasional embarrassments.
Basketball is as much a soap opera as it is a sport. Plot lines, feuds, and vindications consume us more than the pure slog of an 82-game regular season ever could, so Lillard’s shot lived on as a victory despite the trouncing that followed. It was enough to take Portland that far; it was enough to prove the doubters wrong; it was enough to have guts.
Not anymore. Watch that shot from last night again. See the way he eyes up an already doomed Paul George and runs down the clock, the way he tells his teammates to stand down because he’s absolutely got this one, the way he pulls up from the middle of nowhere and turns Russell Westbrook’s soul inside out. Look at the way Lillard calmly pauses after the shot goes down and the crowd erupts. He didn’t wave goodbye to Westbrook and George and gadfly antagonist Dennis Schröder in a fit of pique — he was in total control.
“The last two times that we advanced, I think we kinda were satisfied with getting out of the first series,” he said on court last night after hitting the shot that will, at least for now, define his career. “Sometimes the season wears on you. It's almost like you give into the fatigue and the mental part of it, and you bow out of the playoffs. I think where we are right now as a team, we're not ready to bow out.”
The little victories are important. Defiance and anger and hater-baiting is fun — at least for a while. But Lillard is older and smarter than that now. He’s the unquestioned leader of a genuinely good basketball team who have a chance to do something extraordinary. The Thunder talked shit to him all series — at least when they were winning — and he responded by sending them on an early summer vacation. He humiliated them, then waved goodbye. No need to shout about it. Time to move onto something bigger.