The moment was almost too perfect.
Portland guard Damian Lillard dribbled on the perimeter – just inside half court, really – with the game clock winding down and his team tied with Oklahoma City. Lillard already had 47 points. The Blazers already had a 3-1 lead in the series.
He launched from an estimated 37 feet … and drilled it Tuesday night in front of his home crowd. A nice even 50 points and a first-round series win punctuated by Lillard waving good-bye to the Thunder and star guard Russell Westbrook.
In the process of burying the shot, Lillard also buried doubt. When he waved good-bye, it was a reminder of how he refused to do the same to his own teammates.
Before the series started, the Blazers had lost 10 consecutive playoff games, including first-round sweeps each of the past two years.
After the first of those sweeps, Lillard did a Twitter Q&A with fans in which it was suggested to him that he would need to leave Portland for someplace like Golden State if he ever wanted to win a championship. He replied, “I’m willing to not win it if I can’t build it where I am.”
He’s reiterated that message multiple times since then, including in February when talking to Yahoo Sports. Lillard said: “I do want to win a championship, but there’s other stuff that means more to me. … It’s almost like I’m not willing to sell myself out for that.”
I’m a sucker for Lillard’s perseverance and his staunch refusal to request a trade (or sign as a free agent) in search of a ring.
I don’t necessarily begrudge guys like Kevin Durant and LeBron James for actively seeking a better chance to win a championship on another team (and succeeding in doing so). They put in 16 combined seasons in Seattle/Oklahoma City and Cleveland (first go-round for James), respectively, trying to carry those franchises to success.
LeBron formed a superteam. Durant joined one. Both were in desirable markets. To each their own.
But the story of a well-won triumph after a struggle speaks to me in a more meaningful way. It’s a little old-fashioned, and it’s certainly a novel concept in an NBA filled with forced trades and a very active free agent market.
Maybe it’s a simple as a distinction between earned and obtained. Part of it is probably generational, as I feel every bit my 42 years when I feel myself pulling for Lillard – in his seventh year with Portland – because of his line in the sand.
The interesting part is the journey is far from complete, and Lillard’s Blazers aren’t any further than they’ve been in the past. They also reached the second round in 2014 and 2016 before bowing out quickly.
This year’s Blazers will face either Denver or San Antonio in the second round, and I would like their chances in either case of advancing to the conference finals.
There, they quite possibly would be tasked with trying to dethrone Durant’s Warriors – quite possibly in the last gasp before Durant moves on to yet another team.
It would be easy and even understandable for Lillard – an Oakland native, no less – to covet playing for the Warriors, especially if Portland bows out this year short of a title.
The fact that he won’t is as impressive as any trophy.