Walk-off 37-footer to end a playoff series? Bounce-back win in the fifth game of the regular season? Night-in, night-out, win-or-lose greatness when it matters most?
Rip City knows what time it is.
There was something about this particular late-October contest between the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder that felt familiar. Russell Westbrook was absent, long gone to Houston. So too was Paul George in favor of Los Angeles. Chris Paul was oddly wearing blue and orange, which will take some getting used to. And yet, by the time the final buzzer sounded, with one man left standing a tad taller than the rest, it felt like we’d seen this movie before—that we knew how it would end all along.
On Wednesday, the Trail Blazers defeated the Thunder on the road, 102-99, and while the bad blood of years past was all but gone, the comfort of having a game in Damian Lillard’s hands never felt more present.
Lillard, who had struggled through three quarters, finished with 23 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds after taking over late. He led yet another successful comeback, knocked down deep shots in flurries, and, with the win-first mindset Rip City has always loved, knew when and how to find the right shooters in the right situations.
For anyone even vaguely familiar with this team and this star, it all just felt familiar. And not because it was OKC, who famously fell victim to The Wave last postseason. Not even because Lillard has torn the exact same hearts out from the exact same fans in the same building before.
Lillard has done this throughout his career, but he’s also been doing it all of this season…to every opponent…each and every night.
Scream sample size all you want, but as far as 2019-20 is concerned, it is always Dame Time.
Through five games, Lillard is No. 1 in fourth-quarter points among qualifying players at 12.2 per contest. When looking at players averaging 30-plus minutes per night, Lillard trails only LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Usage % during the final frame, all while shouldering the load of 11 more minutes per game on average.
If numbers aren’t your thing, maybe Lillard’s early-season role as the NBA’s Chief Highlight Officer will impress.
The Sacramento Kings sure took notice:
DAME TIME. pic.twitter.com/RWzwgE4xTi— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) October 26, 2019
Not to mention the Dallas Mavericks:
As did the San Antonio Spurs:
DAME TIME ⌚ pic.twitter.com/j00utQy7jA— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) October 29, 2019
Portland ultimately lost that game to DeMar DeRozan and former Trail Blazers legend Patty Mills, but Lillard proved once again that he can (at least “almost” in this case) dig this team out of the deepest of holes. He’s capable of creating shots for himself with the defense on high alert, and above all else, he’s not afraid to miss the big ones.
As evidenced by Wednesday’s showcase against OKC, he’s also never going to let a big miss dictate what happens the next night out, epitomizing the “short memory” practice everyone loves to preach.
At this point in Lillard’s career, none of this is news for him or his teammates. His calling cards have been clutch play and top-tier leadership for a long time, but it’s those teammates who are suddenly bigger wildcards than they’ve been in recent past.
By February’s trade deadline, Hassan Whiteside could be anything from a busted stopgap to the once-missing title link. Anfernee Simons has as much potential as anyone on the roster but there’s a reason Lillard’s usage is so high. Neither Zach Collins nor Pau Gasol is currently playing, and Jusuf Nurkic’s recovery timeframe remains up in the air.
But if we know anything about Lillard, it’s that he embraces challenge and he never shies away from the spotlight.
One week prior to Wednesday’s game—the morning of the Trail Blazers’ season-opener—ESPN aired a commercial lining up with the new NBA season. Lillard, featured in the ad, glanced at his personal calendar, looked up at SportsCenter’s Linda Cohn, and joked with the gravitas of a Game 7 postgame interview, “It’s always Dame time.”
Five games into 2019-20, we now know this was no joke. This was a warning to the rest of the league, and the Thunder are once again just Dame’s most recent victims.