For years Damian Lillard has been overshadowed by an overabundance of talented point guards in the Western Conference. Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden (who plays both guard positions) have racked up MVPs, scoring titles and become some of the most well-known athletes in the world. Meanwhile, the Portland PG has been well-respected but underappreciated.
Those days are coming to an end.
Lillard put the league on notice Tuesday night by delivering a dazzling 50-point performance against Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Already up 3-1 in the series, Lillard sent the Thunder home after drilling a side-step, 37-foot shot over Paul George’s outstretched arm at the buzzer.
After the game, George was in disbelief about the bucket that ended his season.
"That's a bad, bad shot," George told reporters. "I don't care what anybody says. That's a bad shot. But hey, he made it. That story won't be told that it was a bad shot. We live with that."
No, that’s not a bad shot. To paraphrase the late, great Muhammad Ali, that’s “a bad man!”
The Dallas Mavericks’ Tim Hardaway Jr. had the perfect reaction to Lillard’s dagger.
“😲 😲 😲 That’s just different Dame!!!” Hardaway tweeted.
Many current players and former players chimed in on Twitter about the game-winner, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Donovan Mitchell, Kevin Love and Hall of Famer Allen Iverson.
Even though Lillard and Westbrook went head-to-head, trading buckets and banter, for much of the series, it was fitting that George was the victim of Lillard’s epic shot.
For much of the season, George received buzz as a potential MVP candidate (behind Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo). After averaging 33 points and outdueling both “PG-13” and “Mr. Triple Double” in the playoffs, Lillard can no longer be slept-on as an MVP candidate.
Lillard will have an opportunity to build on his budding reputation as a cold-blooded assassin when the Trail Blazers take on either the Denver Nuggets or San Antonio Spurs in the second round.
Don’t expect either potential opponent to make Portland nervous. The Trail Blazers entered the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the league by winning 14 of its final 17 regular-season games. That streak happened despite the fact that the team lost its starting center, Jusuf Nurkic, to a broken leg in late March. Instead of feeling sorry for itself, the team has rallied around “Big Game Dame” and pushed forward to exceed expectations.
Now “Rip City” has dispatched OKC in just five games, and its confidence is growing by the minute. Fortunately for the Blazers, big performances and even bigger shots are nothing new for Lillard. What’s somewhat new for Lillard is the level of limelight and attention he’ll command after his first-round performance.
LeBron James is watching the playoffs from home. The Warriors and Rockets will duke it out in the other Western Conference semi-finals matchup. That means Lillard will be the biggest star in the Blazers’ second-round matchup.
Greater expectations come with a greater spotlight. Something tells me Lillard is ready for the challenge.
What’s next for OKC?
After the humbling defeat, the future is murky for Westbrook, George and the current Thunder team.
At the All-Star Break, the Thunder sat as the No. 3 seed in the West with a record of 37-20. Westbrook was universally praised for his unselfishness. George was applauded for excelling as the Thunder’s primary scoring option.
After the All-Star Break, the Thunder’s season progressed like a Chinua Achebe novel. The team stumbled to a 12-13 record and dropped to the No. 6 seed. The team narrowly missed slipping down to No. 8 and facing the Golden State Warriors in the first round.
Following a third-straight first-round playoff exit, it should be clear that changes will occur in Oklahoma City. According to Spotrac.com, in the 2019-20 season, the Thunder will owe more than $97M to Westbrook, George and Steven Adams.
The team also picked up the fifth-year option for head coach Billy Donovan and will pay him approximately $4M for the upcoming season.
Will the team attempt to deal one of its star players during the offseason? Will it flush $4M and give Donovan his walking papers? Or will the franchise decide to stay the course and hope that the same squad will produce different results?
It is very likely that all three options are on the table for the front office in Oklahoma City. One thing is clear, everybody should be nervous in OKC.
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