Damian Lillard launched from 33 feet out and could only watch and wait as the ball caromed off the back rim and shot straight up into the air — the fate of the game, and his Portland Trail Blazers’ frantic playoff push, hanging in the balance.
The hottest player in the NBA bubble naturally got the shooter’s bounce. The late 3 gave Lillard 61 points, tying his career high, and propelled his Blazers to a 134-131 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday.
As Lillard relished the victory that wrested sole possession of eighth place in the Western Conference standings away from the Memphis Grizzlies with one seeding game to go, courtside cameras captured the All-Star making a demand.
“Put some respect on my f—ing name,” he said, over and over again as teammates and coaches came to congratulate their hero.
The run the eight-year veteran is on isn’t just garnering respect for the Portland shooting guard, it’s inducting “Dame” into the first-name-only club with NBA greats like Michael, Shaq, Kobe, LeBron and, most appropriately, Wilt.
Tuesday’s scoring spree was Lillard’s third 60-plus-point game of the season; he joins Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in league history with three or more 60-point games in the same season (Chamberlain had 15 in 1961-62 and nine in 1962-63).
“That’s the most important game of our lives,” Lillard told TNT in an on-court interview after the game. “Tonight was great. We said we need one win. We’re going to focus on one game. We got this one done. And that’s the most important one. We got to finish it out right.”
The Blazers are now 5-2 since the restart, with Lillard rebounding from Saturday’s loss against the LA Clippers, in which he missed two late free throws, with 51 points in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers followed by his 61-point effort against Luka Doncic and the Mavs. It’s the first time in his career he has gone for back-to-back 50-point games, making him the second-shortest player in league history, at 6-2, with consecutive 50-point nights. Only Allen Iverson (6-0) was shorter. Tuesday’s performance also lifted Lillard’s career total to 11 50-point games in the regular season, tying him with Iverson for eighth on the all-time list.
“First of all I’m just happy to be in that type of company. It’s an honor,” Lillard said when informed of the Chamberlain stat. “Tonight couldn’t have been better timing for that type of game.”
Lillard’s effort was extra timely considering his backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, has been playing with a nondisplaced fracture in his lower back, first reported by NBC Sports Northwest and confirmed by ESPN.
McCollum had a plus-minus of -25 in 39 minutes, scoring eight points on 3-for-14 shooting with 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 5 fouls. Still, he hit two free throws with 3.9 seconds remaining in regulation to increase Portland’s lead from one to three, setting up a wild last-second miss from the Mavs’ Tim Hardaway Jr. as he attempted to send the game to overtime.
“He’s a little bit banged up,” Lillard said of McCollum. “He’s making no excuses or looking for no way out. He’s thugging it out for the team and being out there for us.”
Lillard was also part of a key defensive stop, drawing a charge on the Mavericks’ Trey Burke with 4.5 seconds remaining. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said Lillard might have slipped one past the referees.
“I haven’t looked at it; the people that had the iPads [on the Dallas coaching staff] said it was clearly a flop,” Carlisle said. “But great players in the moment, they know how to create that situation. So, hey, if it’s a flop, maybe he’ll get fined. I don’t know, but it doesn’t help us in the context of the game. There were so many good elements of that play that it was unfortunate for us.”
Portland will play the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday in the Blazers’ seeding-round finale with a simple directive: Win and they’re guaranteed a spot in the play-in round this weekend, with a first-round berth against the Lakers at stake.
“Nobody wanted to come into this bubble and make the playoffs more than Dame,” Blazers coach Terry Stott said. “And we’ve got one more game to go, but his leadership — obviously his game speaks for itself — but he’s bringing the team along with him.”
As for that back-rim beauty by Lillard that tied the game at 130 with 1:29 remaining, immediately answering a 3 by Kristaps Porzingis on Dallas’ previous possession, Stotts recalled Don Nelson’s foul line jumper in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals that also took a fortuitous bounce and helped the Boston Celtics beat the Lakers.
“Nellie’s shot wasn’t even close to Dame’s shot,” Stotts quipped.
Lillard is convinced his shot was helped by a little divine intervention.
“I think that was my cousin, rest in peace, Chef B, I think that was him dropping that in for me,” he said.
Brandon “Chef B” Johnson, who prepared food for Lillard, McCollum and other Blazers players over the years, died suddenly in May.
“He was just the person who was on top of a lot of things for me and wore a lot of hats for me,” Lillard said. “He was my right-hand man. Everything I needed he did for me, basically, and losing him, it hurt. … I just try to continue what I feel like he would want me to do, and I just been dealing with it that way.
“Just try to continue on the path I know he was proud of.”