Since the turn of the year, Damian Lillard has been one of the best offensive players in the league, yet hasn’t garnered the accolades or praise for his run of form that you might expect.
His greatness is in limbo. Lillard has proven he is one of the better players in the NBA, but because of his team’s struggles, and a general acceptance that they won’t be challenging for championship honors anytime soon, most of what he does feels inconsequential. Or, at least, wasted. There are other players and teams to concentrate on who will play a more significant role in this season’s grand narrative.
That’s unfortunate, because Lillard is one of the NBA’s most compelling active players, in both ability and character.
To which Lillard replied, “You know I’m the last person you want to see in the playoffs.”
After the game, Lillard said he didn’t have a problem with Westbrook, and on his instagram, he uploaded a picture of him and Westbrook hugging with the caption: “They confuse competing with hate when it’s ruthless vs ruthless.”
Ruthless. What a perfect word for him. The word and Lillard’s response to Westbrook pair well together because it alludes to, in my opinion, his most defining moment as a player: His shot to eliminate the Thunder from the playoffs last season.
Lillard isn’t threatening Westbrook so much as he’s asserting his identity as a basketball player, which was expressed to its fullest at the expense of Westbrook and the Thunder. Whenever I think of Lillard and what he is, I think of that moment.
The shot has a great prologue and epilogue. Before the game, Lillard said to his friends, “I’m getting rid of these motherfuckers tomorrow.” He then went on to score 50 points to do so before waving goodbye to the Thunder. After the game, Paul George — having just been the victim of Lillard’s shot, and the Thunder’s season once again ending in disappointment — infamously declared that though it went in, he thought Lillard had taken a bad shot. A quote which only elevated the legend of that moment in Lillard’s favor.
Even without what came before and after, the shot was an incredible drama by itself. The game was tied and the Blazers had a chance to win, but it was only Game 5. There could have been other games to play. Lillard could have taken a safer option rather than a deep three-pointer. He could have relaxed. But he didn’t. Lillard wanted the series to end, on that play, in a statement of his superiority.
Lillard could have also tried to isolate against someone else. George is regarded as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and his statement about the shot being bad was true both in regards to the distance and who was playing defense. But in order for Lillard to prove himself, the shot had to come against his opponent’s best champion.
So the clock ticked down, and Lillard dribbled near the bottom portion of the Blazers’ logo. George was in his stance, prepared for whatever attack Lillard had. And as time neared zero and Lillard had made no efforts to go towards the rim, it became clear to everyone he was going to shoot. He was daring George to stop the obvious. Asking his opponent: Are you better at your job than I am at mine?
In the blink of an eye, Lillard gathered the ball and sidestepped. George read it and lunged, but he was too deep to block it. The shot went up, all was silent, and then, a second later, the crowd erupted in celebration. Lillard made his statement. He didn’t even celebrate; he was mobbed by his teammates and yet he looked around as if he was insulted that George even thought he could defend him. His reaction to one of best moments in the NBA in the last few years was to essentially say, “Of course I was going to make that shot.”
There was a time when Lillard played with the proverbial chip on his shoulder. When he took any lack of acknowledgement as a personal insult, and was hell-bent on proving his greatness all the time. I would imagine the younger Lillard would have been angered by Westbrook’s mocking question.
What makes Lillard, as he is now, so dangerous, is he is self-assured. He knows exactly how good he is; the outside noise no longer matters. Rather than get riled up by taunts, all he has to do now is remind opponents what he has done to them before, and that he can do it again.
Last season, Lillard walked up to one of the NBA’s best defenders in the league and drained a shot from the logo in his face to end his hopes and dreams. It’s that energy which propels him. He’s no hero or villain, nor does he need personal feuds for motivation. He is simply an incredible basketball player who is as ruthless as they come.