Damian Lillard is a basketball god.
After scoring 112 points combined over his two previous games, the Portland Trail Blazers star followed with another 42 and the biggest defensive play of the night in a do-or-die 134-133 win over the Brooklyn Nets. The victory sends the Blazers to a play-in series as the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Portland will face the Memphis Grizzlies with the NBA’s final playoff spot on the line on Saturday, needing one win in two tries to advance to play the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round on Tuesday. Had the Blazers lost to the Nets, the Phoenix Suns would have faced the Grizzlies in the play-in series.
And it nearly happened.
Portland survived by the slimmest of margins. Caris LeVert’s 37 points willed Brooklyn into a meaningless game against a desperate team, but his 23-foot game-winning attempt fell just short in the final seconds.
“It feels better going into the play-in game knowing that our eight games we had to work for,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes on TNT’s postgame broadcast, “so we deserve to be where we’re going.”
There is little doubt Lillard will be named the Player of the Seeding Games prior to Saturday’s game. He scored 51 points in a three-point win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, 61 points in a three-point win over the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday and 42 points in Thursday’s one-point win over the Nets. He posted shooting splits of 56/49/95 and added nine assists a night over those final three games — all must-win.
There has been no greater clutch regular-season performance in the history of the NBA. No player has scored as many points over his final three regular-season games as Lillard just did. Only once did a player score 154 over any three-game period this season. His name was Damian Lillard (158 from Jan. 20-26).
Double-teamed all night, Lillard dribble through and shot over whatever the Brooklyn defense threw at him. His team trailing the Nets by seven with 10:29 remaining, facing elimination, Lillard pulled up from 36 feet — with one foot on the NBA’s center-court logo — and drilled a three-pointer that swung momentum for a dying team. His teammates missed open three after open three and played worse on defense. They made sensations out of Nets guards Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Tyler Johnson, both of whom were not on NBA rosters when the season was suspended. But Lillard’s long triple breathed life back into the Blazers.
“Our season is on the line,” said Lillard. “Maybe three and a half minutes went by where I was just trying to make the right play. Two guys were coming to me, and I was just outlet-ing to the first guy I saw, so we could attack them and have an advantage. And then it got to the point where I was like, ‘I’m not going to sleep well tonight knowing that I was just passive and made the right play,’ so each time I saw a look, I don’t care how far it was ... if I had a sniff, I was raising up and shooting it. And that’s why I shot that one.”
Lillard’s 27-footer a minute later sliced the deficit to 109-108. C.J. McCollum continued careening into the lane, and Jusuf Nurkic battled on the boards, making buckets where there none. And Lillard drilled another 28-footer to regain the lead with 7:12 to play. The Nets had led by as many as 10 points in the second half.
There were seven lead changes and three times over the final eight-plus minutes, a credit to LeVert and his depleted Brooklyn team’s competitiveness in a game that meant nothing to their own playoff seeding.
The Nets pushed their lead back to five on a LeVert turnaround with 4:18 left, but Lillard drew the defense to find a wide-open Carmelo Anthony for his 10th assist. LeVert answered, and Lillard drew a foul, calmly sinking three free throws to cut Brooklyn’s lead to 126-125. Lillard sandwiched two more assists to Nurkic and Gary Trent Jr. around another LeVert turnaround. The Blazers had their lead with 2:29 on the clock.
In a game both teams struggled to get stops, Lillard scored the biggest. He stripped LeVert at halfcourt with 1:12 remaining and the Nets hunting a tie. Instead, McCollum, who had missed seven straight, swished a 21-footer to stretch Portland’s lead to four — its largest since the opening minutes of the third quarter.
LeVert would not go quietly. His three-point play trimmed the deficit back to one, and an Anthony miss put the ball back in the rising Brooklyn star’s hands with the shot clock turned off. He worked opposite McCollum, dribbling out the final seconds before stepping back into an open jumper. Portland’s season was on the line. And LeVert back-rimmed it. Lillard drew a deep breath, clenched his fist and hunched over.
A basketball god’s work was done. For the night. Lillard will look to do it all over again 14 hours later.
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