Damian Lillard Leads Portland Trail Blazers To Victory In First Round Of NBA Playoffs

Apr 24, 2019
Originally published on April 24, 2019 4:58 pm
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The National Basketball Association playoffs officially are on Lillard time. That's the phrase all-star point guard Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers uses when he does something dramatic, which is often. But last night in Portland, Ore., Lillard went to new heights in leading his team to a first-round NBA playoff series victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

NPR's Tom Goldman was there and has this report.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: This was going to be a story about Damian Lillard's leadership, how he has carried a Trail Blazers team through a season of injuries and insults with a steady maturity that feels older than his 28 years. We'll still get to that. But first we've got to talk about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: Last night at Portland's Moda Center with the score tied 115 all, the game clock a few ticks from zero, Lillard launched a jump shot from near the Blazers half-court logo. And, well, that roar wasn't for a miss. The shot gave Lillard 50 points for the night, and it vanquished Oklahoma City, a team that owned Portland this regular season, winning all four games. Portland almost got even in the playoff series, winning four games to one. Portland head coach Terry Stotts got to the postgame interview room, sat down and smiled.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRY STOTTS: The legend grows.

GOLDMAN: Lillard's legend-building, buzzer-beating, series-winning shot was his second. He did it against the Houston Rockets in 2014. But last night was bigger. It came almost exactly a year after one of his most humiliating moments. New Orleans swept Portland out of the first round of the 2018 playoffs largely because it shut down Lillard. His reaction planted the seed for last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAMIAN LILLARD: I was like, I'm just going to accept responsibility that we didn't play well. It was embarrassing. But when you go through stuff like that and you stay together and you keep working, you keep believing in what we do.

GOLDMAN: That attitude fueled a successful regular season run. But suddenly, late last month, that success seemed like it might come crashing to a halt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: The left leg buckled, and Nurk is down, and he is in considerable pain, and he has a serious injury.

GOLDMAN: As heard on NBC Sports Northwest, Portland's starting center, Jusuf Nurkic, suffered a compound fracture of his left leg. He'd been having the best season of his young career. Among those saddened for Nurkic and the Blazers was Randy Rahe, Lillard's former college coach at Weber State. Rahe still stays in close contact with his former star.

RANDY RAHE: When Nurkic went down, you know, I texted him. I says, gosh, dang it, this is a tough one - tough one. And his text back was we'll be fine, coach; we'll be fine.

GOLDMAN: That's the same message Lillard sent to his teammates. Basketball pundits insisted Portland wouldn't be fine, saying the wounded Blazers were the team everyone wanted to play in the postseason. But since the Nurkic injury, Portland's won 12 games, lost three. Rahe says Lillard's season-long mission of building a culture of trust and togetherness shows.

RAHE: The connectedness of the team is really evident when you watch it right now.

GOLDMAN: Of course leadership sometimes means strapping a team to your back and making eye-popping, three-point winning shots, which Lillard did last night and more. During the Oklahoma City series, Lillard and his teammates stayed calm in the face of OKC's trash-talking. But following the final shot, Lillard raised his right arm and waved at the OKC bench.

LILLARD: The series was over. You know, that was it. And I was just waving goodbye to them.

GOLDMAN: After a long year of pessimism and criticism, last night, Damian Lillard had the last word, maybe with more to come. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY MORNING JACKET'S "I'M AMAZED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.