THE LEAGUE IS FILLED WITH EXPLOSIVE SCORERS, BUT NOT MANY CAN TAKE OVER A GAME LIKE DAMIAN LILLARD, THE POINT GUARD (AND SOCIAL DIRECTOR) WHO HAS THE BLAZERS LOOKING DANGEROUS
DAME TIME dawned in the spring of 2006, when Santa Clara University hosted a Memorial Day Weekend tournament for local AAU teams at the Leavey Center, and the Oakland Rebels fell behind the NorCal Magic by 20 points on the first court. Coach Raymond Young upbraided the Rebels at halftime, and afterward he pulled aside the enigmatic point guard he had almost cut a couple of years earlier. Damian Lillard was a gifted scorer but, to Young's trained eye, an uninspired one. Only 16, Lillard already moved at the measured pace of a pro, cool and nonchalant. "Can you even take over a game?" Young asked. "Do you even know how to do that? The time is here. Can you get it done?"
Lillard's teammates, eavesdropping on the bench, do not remember his response. But they detected the slightest change in his manner, the way he shimmied his shoulders up and down, revving an internal engine they didn't realize he had. "That," recalls former Rebel P.J. Taylor, "was the beginning of Dame Time." Most of what followed is predictable, a flurry of driving layins and pull-up jumpers, confounding the defense and melting the deficit. I'm actually doing this, Lillard thought. I'm taking over the game. Down by three points in the final minute, the Rebels fed Lillard in the corner. His bloodless three tied the score with one second left. Overcome, he stripped off his white jersey, detached no more.
"Put your jersey back on!" Rebels assistant coach Damon Jones hollered, striding onto the floor. The referee heard Jones and turned toward Lillard, still shirtless in the corner. The ref called a technical foul, the Magic sank a free throw, and the Rebels fell to the loser's bracket. On the way out of the gym, Young pulled his point guard aside again. "You can't take your jersey off," the coach started, "but you showed me something today." For the next two seasons at Oakland High, plus four at Weber State and five in Portland, Dame Time became a trademark. As early as the first quarter but typically the fourth, Lillard bobs his shoulders like a lathered heavyweight, and friends beam at the sight of a hustler's tell. "He's about to go on one," Taylor says, which could mean 10 points or 20, a bundle of layups or a few 30-footers. "I have the ability to make my mind go to a difference place," Lillard explains. "I have stretches in games where things need to happen and I can make those things happen." Afterward, he doesn't dare flash anything more than a mean mug, pointing at an imaginary watch on his wrist.
All the A-list point guards possess a defining superpower: Steph Curry's range and Kyrie Irving's handle, John Wall's speed and Russell Westbrook's burst. Lillard's timely binges earned him the All-Star appearances, the signature shoes, the max contract worth $139 million that binds him to the Trail Blazers until 2021. In the summer of '15, when power forward LaMarcus Aldridge bolted Portland for San Antonio, the team cast off veterans Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews as well. The Blazers lined up behind Lillard, surrounding their clutch closer with a sack of spare parts and a promise of lottery balls. "They thought they were going to—what do you call it? Rebuild?" says former center Chris Kaman. "That didn't work for Dame. He wasn't having it."
He channeled Gilbert Arenas with the Wizards and Stephon Marbury with the Suns, convincing himself he could piggyback Portland to the playoffs on those rising shoulders. He studied the college version of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, singeing nets as Chris Jackson at LSU, and Tim Hardaway, when the killer crossover was the UTEP Two-step. "He felt a lot of responsibility," recalls Blazers center Meyers Leonard, "to get us buckets." Lillard's shots per game climbed from 16.6 to 19.7, his points from 21.0 to 25.1. Besides backcourt mate CJ McCollum, no one on the roster hoisted half as many shots or scored half as many points. "Sometimes he was MacGyver," says assistant coach David Vanterpool. "A lot of times he was The Greatest American Hero."
In crunch time Lillard scanned the eyes of starting small forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who was signed off the Mavericks' bench. "I'm not going to put this pressure on Chief," he'd tell himself. "I'll take the pressure. If I miss and they say I should have made the pass, I'll live with that." The secret to sinking the dagger, Lillard believes, is being O.K. with clanking it. He'll get blocked by Rudy Gobert at the buzzer one night, then splash the Lakers with 0.7 of a second left the next. Portland reached the Western Conference semifinals in 2016 on the strength of Lillard's spectacular jags, but they were impossible to sustain. The Blazers faded last year, first-round chum for the Warriors, and didn't begin this season any better.
"What can we do?" Lillard asked owner Paul Allen in January, when the Blazers were struggling at 23--21. "How can we improve?" Reports of the meeting prompted panic across Portland's communal tables, understandable given the propensity of NBA headliners to flex boardroom muscles. But Lillard was not demanding a trade. "It was a simple conversation," he insists. "It wasn't like I asked questions and he gave answers. You don't always have answers." The onus fell back on the 27-year-old to produce his own help; more MacGyver, less American Hero. "I'm about to go on one," Lillard told Young before the All-Star break, and the coach braced for another blitz. But the new version of Dame Time—or Lillard Time, whatever your preference—has not been a five- or 10- or 15-minute phenomenon. It's spanned nearly two months.
FROM LILLARD to Irving, Curry to Westbrook, the virtuoso point guards who front the modern NBA wrestle with a common existential crisis. They are wired to score, yet their position demands that they share. When Portland drafted Lillard in 2012, coaches referred to him as "a scoring guard." Lillard was more sniper than playmaker, but at 6'3", he had the look—and the personality—of a point. In his first season with the Blazers, he overheard one of the veterans disparaging a rookie at practice. "Haven't you seen my campaign?" asked Lillard, who had recently launched the antibullying program RESPECT. "You can't talk about people like that."
Lillard pored over old videos of John Stockton and Karl Malone, hoping to replicate their pick-and-roll harmony with Aldridge. How did those guys get so close to the basket? he wondered. Lillard and Aldridge formed a successful partnership, one that started and ended with the pocket pass. They did not clash, but they also did not mesh. "When he left, people acted like we'd had a problem, and we didn't," Lillard says. "But we didn't have the kind of relationship where we talked or went to dinner, and maybe he would have stayed if we did."
Lillard emerged convinced that teammates need to be friends, as they were in high school and college, rather than associates. He yearns to know families, hometowns, off-court interests. When general manager Neil Olshey reimagined Portland's roster in the summer of 2015, he targeted players in the same age bracket as Lillard, who might relate to an unheralded recruit out of Weber State. The Blazers already employed McCollum, another mid-major hero, from Lehigh. They gave a four-year contract to Aminu, averaging 5.6 points for the Mavericks, and a three-year deal to Ed Davis, on his fourth organization in six seasons. They sent a second-round pick to Orlando for Moe Harkless even though he couldn't crack the Magic rotation. "Great get!" Lillard texted Olshey after the trade, remembering Harkless from draft workouts.
Unleashing his inner social chair, Lillard planned a weeklong retreat to San Diego with beach barbecues, Padres games and touch football showdowns, "I was all over it," Lillard recalls. "I was so hands-on about being the leader." Vanterpool relayed a Magic Johnson story from Cavaliers assistant Larry Drew, who joined the Lakers in 1989. On one of his first Showtime road trips, Drew heard Johnson shouting in the hotel lobby during check-in: "Lakers going out tonight!" Drew, a 31-year-old vet, preferred to lie low and settled into his room for the evening. Ten minutes later he heard a banging on his door. It was Johnson, dressed and waiting. "I said," Magic repeated, "Lakers going out tonight."
The Blazers tell similar stories about Lillard: road-trip dinners with everybody on the team, postgame debriefs with Davis, postpractice pedicures with McCollum. The guards watch their minutes together on an iPad, though presumably not at the salon. When he isn't hooping or recording rap albums, Dame D.O.L.L.A. seems to mimic the lifestyle of a Lake Oswego soccer mom. He swims at a local fitness center, takes hot yoga with Vanterpool ("After the class you can lay there as long as you want; I lay back and I'm just free," Lillard says) and hikes Angel's Rest with trainer Ben Kenyon ("It's just a positive environment; everyone was like a big team up there."). He eats vegan in the summer but reintroduces meat when his weight drops.
"I've been in places with superstars who don't talk to the 15th guy," Davis says. "If you walked in our locker room and didn't know who made what, you wouldn't be able to tell he makes the most money. Dame carries himself like one of us." In his first season sans Aldridge, Lillard grew weary of his own voice and feared others felt the same. But most Blazers were new to the organization and hesitant, searching for their place in the league. They followed Lillard to the practice facility and didn't leave, prompting coach Terry Stotts to impose blackout dates so his assistants could preserve off days. "Still, somebody will call because he wants to shoot," Vanterpool laughs. "What are you going to do? Tell him you're busy?"
McCollum has morphed from sidekick to costar. Harkless, who shot 17.9% from three-point range his last season in Orlando, is currently at 41.5%. The 6'9" Aminu, who shot 27.4% from three in his last season in Dallas, is up to 38.2%, while defending Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and everybody in between. Center Jusuf Nurkic, after averaging 7.5 points for the Nuggets, has chipped in 14.5 for the Blazers since he was acquired at last season's trade deadline. Spare parts have become linchpins. Lillard witnessed the evolution and turbocharged it, recognizing that the most effective way to empower NBA players is with the ball.
"Dame's ability to score is second to none," Leonard says. "He can always go get us a bucket. But some of our other guys rely on him to get in the flow of the game. The step he's made is understanding, O.K., I can probably create something pretty good for myself right now, but what if I get downhill, and two defenders come, and I throw behind to Moe or Chief? Players need to touch the ball. They need to feel involved. They'll play harder and communicate better and be way more likely to get a block on the other end. That's how you lead, how you win." Drive-and-kick trumps mani-pedi.
Lillard's line—26.6 points, 6.6 assists, 43.9% shooting (36.4% from deep)—has not deviated much in this, the best season of his career. "But the impact is different," he clarifies. "First quarter, I might call a play where I'm coming off a ball screen, just to see what kind of coverage they start in. Is he showing? Is he going to be back? Are they trapping me? Who is helping on the weak side? I'm like, 'CJ, you go be in the opposite corner, because that's where they're sending the help on you. When Nurk is diving, you might have a three, and if you hit a three now they'll try to get back to you and I can no-look Nurk for a dunk. Then the bigs are going to be worried about Nurk and the weak side won't want to help, so I can turn the corner.'"
An uprising in the first quarter, he has discovered, is not as meaningful as one in the fourth. When Dame Time comes early, opponents have to send traps and doubles, and Lillard is forced to dump off. But when he establishes teammates at the outset, they can find a rhythm and he can soften the defense for later. "There's also a big psychological difference for those role players between getting the ball because your franchise player chooses to give it to you," says a Blazers official, "and getting it because he has to get it out of his hands."
After a loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 22, Harkless told NBC Sports Northwest, "I feel like I'm just out there ... running track." Lillard brainstormed ways he could reincorporate a marginalized teammate. "The difference between Dame and a lot of the scorers is he actually cares how the other guys feel," Vanterpool says. "Watch him. He'll drive down the slot, so the big has to come over and help, which means Moe's man has to crack down on our big, which means Moe is open. That's creating a shot on purpose for someone you care about."
The Blazers won 13 games in a row from Valentine's Day through March 18, with Lillard netting 40 points against the Suns and 39 against the Lakers, 19 in the fourth both times. "But we had three games where Chief has been the one making the big shot," Lillard recounts. "Up by two, 58 seconds left, two people come, Chief open, I'm making that pass. That's the way it should be." At Dame Time he hears opposing coaches scream, "Get up! Get up!" and feels defenders cheat his way. He is trying to leverage the fear and the chaos his stroke inspires.
Lillard searches for the sweet spot between taking charge and letting go. Every time Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner speak up in the Blazers' huddle, or Davis halts a film session, or McCollum grabs the iPad, he creeps closer. "That's more effective than our team looking like a dictatorship," he says. "But if I'm not having a great game, then I feel like I've got to be more vocal, so people see it's not about me and how well I'm playing."
Rough patches are rare. Lillard used to be a dubious defender, same as Irving and Curry, expending most of his energy throwing flames. But he resents the notion that effort alone can halt 50 pick-and-rolls a night. "You learn terms and you get ahead of the curve," he says. "If I hear rub, I know a mid pick-and-roll is coming. If I hear wide, I know a pin-down is coming, and away a drag screen is coming. If I hear 99 or 77, I know it's a double drag with the bigs up top, and twist is a screen and rescreen." His defensive rating has improved in the past year, from 108.9 to 103.7, as he's applied NBA jargon the way he mastered running an offense.
During a home game against the Celtics on March 23, scouts were tracking Blazers sets. "Stotts is known as a play-caller, and he has always called about 90% of their stuff," one said. "This year that has completely switched, to where Dame is calling about 90%." Trust travels two ways, from coach to star and star to team. "He sees things he didn't see before," Stotts says. "He's become a point guard and not a scoring guard."
GOLDEN STATE is a specter that hangs over everybody at playoff time, but no one feels the Warriors omnipresence more acutely than Lillard, who plays in their conference and hails from their town. Lillard grew up a Dubs fan, but whenever he saw Oakland native Gary Payton home from Seattle, he wondered if he should be wearing green instead of blue. The only difference is those Sonics were better than those Warriors, while these Warriors are better than anybody. "You'll see Golden State T-shirts in my neighborhood," Lillard says, "and it takes a second for me to let my pride go."
The Blazers have emerged from the gridlock beneath the Rockets and the Warriors, settling into the No. 3 seed, which will make them modest favorites in the first round and monumental underdogs in the second. Portland can match up with Golden State in the backcourt—"If the Warriors traded Steph for Dame, they wouldn't miss a beat," says an opposing coach—but not on the wings.
Lillard won't hear it. At Weber State he used to play a college basketball video game, but only if he could be the Wildcats. "He always thought he'd take us to the Final Four," remembers former Weber assistant Phil Beckner, now at Boise State. Lillard threw his arms around Weber State and never let go. He established an alumni game, persuading Adidas to design the uniforms, and works out every summer with Beckner. He likes to train with just the coach, but Beckner often asks a few Broncos to join. "I know you can execute the skill," Beckner tells Lillard. "But you don't truly master it until you can teach it to someone else."
When the Blazers drafted Lillard sixth, he assumed fans might revolt because they'd never seen him on national TV with Kentucky or Duke. But the small-market franchise embraced the small-school prospect, who eagerly reciprocated. Oregon reminded him of Ogden and, going back further, Oakland. Not long after that first episode of Dame Time, the vaunted Oakland Soldiers recruited him, with the lure of far-flung AAU tournaments and fancy gear. Lillard craved the exposure, but he stuck with the down-home Rebels. "I'm going to get a scholarship," he told himself, "and I'm going to do it with the coaches who have been picking me up from school and dropping me off at 10 p.m. and buying me food and giving me bus money."
Of course, he landed that scholarship, and virtually everything else a basketball player dreams about. All that remains is a title, ever-so-elusive in an era when four future Hall of Famers happen to play for the same club. Lillard mulls a question he doesn't want to answer, whether he'd be able to find peace without the trophy. It's a question many of his peers will have to ponder as well.
"I would like to win a championship as bad as anybody, but because of who I am, I'd get a lot more satisfaction if I got it the hard way," Lillard says. "If I can't figure it out here and I never win one, I can live with the effort I put into it. I can live with it maybe not happening for me. I'm going to roll with this team regardless of what people may feel about our chances. I'm going to live and die with this."
"[THE BLAZERS] THOUGHT THEY WERE GOING TO—WHAT DO YOU CALL IT? REBUILD?" SAYS FORMER CENTER CHRIS KAMAN. "THAT DIDN'T WORK FOR DAME. HE WASN'T HAVING IT."
LILLARD UNLEASHED HIS INNER SOCIAL CHAIR. "I WAS ALL OVER IT," HE SAYS. "I WAS SO HANDS-ON ABOUT BEING THE LEADER."
LILLARD BRAINSTORMS WAYS TO INVOLVE TEAMMATES. "THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DAME AND A LOT OF SCORERS IS HE CARES HOW OTHER GUYS FEEL," SAYS VANTERPOOL.
"HE SEES THINGS HE DIDN'T SEE BEFORE," STOTTS SAYS OF LILLARD. "HE'S BECOME A POINT GUARD AND NOT A SCORING GUARD."
THE CROSSOVER as seen on SITV
With the playoffs nearing, we posed a handful of questions to ROHAN NADKARNI(far left) and MATT DOLLINGER. They can be seen every week hosting The Crossover on SI TV. Tune in on Amazon Channels to watch.
IF YOU'RE GOLDEN STATE, HOW NERVOUS ARE YOU ABOUT STEPH CURRY'S KNEE, WHICH WILL KEEP HIM OUT OF (AT LEAST) THE FIRST ROUND?
I'm actually decently nervous if I'm the Warriors. Draymond Green has been a step slow for large parts of the season, and the team is just a lot easier to defend when Steph Curry isn't pulling defenders 40 feet from the basket. Which team Golden State draws in the first round will be crucial. The T-Wolves with a healthy Jimmy Butler could be interesting.
Minimally. The Warriors become mortal when Curry is sidelined (14--11 this year without him), but they're still godly compared to the bottom half of the West's playoff field. An MVP and two other All-Stars should be enough to dispose of teams that are just happy to be in the postseason. Maybe they lose a game, but not the series.
THE ROCKETS HAVE WON 31 OF THEIR LAST 33, AND THE TWO LOSSES WERE BY A TOTAL OF FIVE POINTS. IS IT POSSIBLE THEY'RE PEAKING TOO SOON?
If the 73-win Warriors can peak too early, anyone can. But while it's tough to erase the memories of James Harden (left) and Chris Paul choking in playoffs past, this team has handled adversity beautifully, playing well with Harden and CP3 out of the lineup. With an army of dangerous role players, the most versatile, potent offense in the NBA and a sneaky-good defense, this is Houston's year.
I agree, no chance. The playoffs come down to top-end talent and matchups. If anything, the Rockets' regular-season success is merely a precursor to what they can do when they tighten their rotation and play even more of the Harden-Paul duo, which is smoking opponents of all caliber every night. If Houston loses, it will be because of the opponent, not regular-season success.
OFTEN A TEAM'S FORTUNES WILL RIDE ON THE PERFORMANCE OF ONE PLAYER. WHO IS THE BIGGEST X-FACTOR THIS POSTSEASON?
John Wall (right). The Wizards are limping into the playoffs (6--8 since March 1), but if his knees are healthy, the East features another potential spoiler. Wall was dominant last postseason (27.2 points, 10.3 assists per game), and he has a deeper supporting cast this year. If he's healthy, the Wizards, who don't figure to finish better than sixth, are a nightmare first-round matchup for a top--three seed.
Joel Embiid. If he returns from his fractured orbital bone and concussion, the 76ers will be an extremely tough out. This is a team that's actually built for the playoffs. With no back-to-backs, Embiid won't have to sit out any games and Philly can play its starting five—one of the best units in the NBA—big minutes. With their 7-footer, the Sixers are Threat Level Midnight. Without him, the danger subsides.
OUTSIDE OF KEVIN LOVE (WHEN HEALTHY), LEBRON JAMES'S CLEVELAND TEAMMATES HAVEN'T EXACTLY BEEN GIVING HIM MUCH HELP. WHO IS THE THIRD-MOST-IMPORTANT CAVALIER?
Rodney Hood, who gives the Cavs youth on the perimeter that they've lacked in recent seasons. With J.R. Smith struggling and George Hill (below) still washing the Sacramento off him, Hood will be a key piece in the playoffs. His success will hinge on how he plays on the defensive end, though. The results haven't been promising so far.
It's Hill. Remember when he was as an All-Star-caliber point guard for the Jazz last season? If the Cavs can coax a similar performance out of the 10-year vet they become a juggernaut again. I think he's been steady since arriving in February, but when he's assertive and looks for his shot, he becomes one of the best two-way players on the floor. Otherwise, he's a respectable, but not dangerous, role player. The Cavs already have that in José Calderón; they need Hill to channel his Utah days.
WITH ALL THAT'S AT STAKE, WHICH TEAM HAS THE MOST TO LOSE?
Cleveland. So there's this guy named LeBron (right). He'll be a free agent at the end of the season. And he has a history of leaving teams that don't give him the best chance to make it to the Finals. And he's kind of complained about the roster already. And the owner. And the coach. He also occasionally sends coded messages on social media that make you think he might want to play elsewhere. I've also noticed a handful of billboards suggesting he might be welcomed in the NBA's 29 other cities. So, yeah. It's Cleveland. Don't blow it, guys. No pressure.
The Warriors. No one will have sympathy if Curry's left-MCL sprain keeps them out of the Finals. Not with that roster. The Internet jokes would be ruthless. Kevin Durant would have to become a full-time podcaster to deflect his critics. Golden State has been the prohibitive title favorite since July 4, 2016. There will be an avalanche of Schadenfreude if the Warriors somehow lose.
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WATCH DAMIAN LILLARD SIT DOWN WITH LEE JENKINS ON SI TV'S THE BIG INTERVIEW. CHECK IT OUT ON AMAZON CHANNELS.