LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Officially, the scoreboard reads single-digit minutes ticking away. Unofficially, the scoreboard reads “Dame Time.”
During the NBA season restart, that has marked the time Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard guides his team amid persisting double teams, tired legs and increased pressure.
“My level of focus actually goes up in the fourth quarter because it’s time to win or lose the game,” Lillard said. “A lot of people in that situation are fatigued mentally or physically. So they might waiver or just give in to it. I like to take those moments to challenge myself, level up and rise to those.”
Lillard has risen to those occasions well. The Trail Blazers finished with a 100-93 win over the Lakers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series for a number of reasons. But the most iconic moment happened when Lillard drilled a 36-foot 3-pointer for a 92-89 lead with 3:13 left after meeting a near double team.
Welcome to Dame Time, where Lillard has rarely met a shot that is a bad shot no matter what Paul George says. After all, Lillard led the NBA in second-half scoring this season (16.2). Those numbers increased during the season restart when he has averaged 10.2 points in the fourth quarter alone.
So when Portland plays Los Angeles in Game 2 on Thursday, you know who Portland coach Terry Stotts will choose to have the ball in his hands during crunch time.
“I trust Dame. I trust his decision making,” Stotts said. “I trust he’s going to get a makeable shot. For him, that’s a makeable shot. I trust him that if it’s not there, he will make the right decision.”
Only once during the season restart did Lillard not thrive during Dame Time. Lillard missed a pair of free throws and a potential game-tying 3-pointer in a seed-in loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, an exchange that led to post-game trash talk among Lillard, George and Clippers guard Patrick Beverley. Otherwise, Dame Time has featured Lillard performing the spectacular as he led the Blazers to their seventh consecutive playoff appearance.
Damian Lillard has proven an offensive force in the closing minutes of a game. (Photo: Mike Ehrmann, pool photo, USA TODAY Sports)
On Aug. 9, Lillard scored 18 of his 51 points in the fourth quarter in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Two days later, Lillard posted 22 of his 61 points in the fourth quarter in a win over the Dallas Mavericks, punctuated with a 33-foot 3 that bounced off the rim and dropped into the basket to tie the score with 1:29 left. And against the Lakers in Game 1, Lillard played a large part in the Blazers closing the final 7:39 with a 22-9 run.
“I don’t have a fearful mentality about it when it’s happening,” Lillard said. “If we lose, we lose. Obviously, we don’t want to. I think that could make it a stressful situation.”
The opposing team may be stressed, though. Consider how the Lakers responded when Lillard crossed halfcourt with the score tied at 89 with 3:17 remaining.
Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope picked Lillard up at the timeline. Trail Blazers center Hassan Whiteside set a screen for Lillard, but that prompted Lakers forward Anthony Davis to greet Lillard just above the 3-point line. So Lillard simply stopped, pulled up from 36 feet and sank the shot.
“I don’t just go out there and settle for it and shoot it all game long. I feel like I have a good grip on when to take it as far as time and score and where we are in a game,” Lillard said. “We started to take over the game. I just felt that the time was right to go for it. I figured if it went in, they would call timeout. They did. I think I’m getting more comfortable with the situations and where I take those.”
Because of that comfort level, Lillard does not have to be the one taking shots during Dame Time. His teammates can join in on the fun, too. As Stotts said, “what’s encouraging for us as a team is we do believe we’ll find a way to win a game.”
During Lillard’s 61-point outburst against Dallas, he found CJ McCollum on the final possession, despite knowing McCollum was nursing a back injury and shooting 2-for-14 from the field. McCollum made two foul shots for a 134-131 lead with 3.9 seconds left. In the final two minutes of the Blazers’ play-in tournament win over the Memphis Grizzlies, Lillard stepped aside for McCollum to make two consecutive jumpers before setting up Carmelo Anthony for a 3-pointer that opened a 122-116 lead with 16 seconds left.
In Portland’s Game 1 win over the Lakers, Lillard set up Anthony for another 3-pointer for a 95-89 lead with 2:33 left. Just over a minute later, Anthony set up Gary Trent Jr. for an open three for a 98-93 lead with 1:15 remaining. Portland sealed the win after Lillard set up Jusuf Nurkic for a dunk with 16.1 seconds left.
“It’s responsibility. It’s not always me making a big shot,” Lillard said. “We’ve shown that trust that different guys come up big in those situations. It makes us more comfortable as a team. I think that’s why we’ve been able to perform so far in that.”
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