Damian Lillard: A Star on the Rise

Two years in, and the question already booms. Is young Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard the most clutch shooter in the NBA? In his first playoff appearance and sophomore season, Lillard has already delivered thrilling performances, dramatic shots, acrobatic finishes, and hilarious commercials(a well-deserved $100m deal with Adidas). Fresh off of perhaps the greatest shot in Trail Blazer history, we take a look at the young star’s continuous rise into the game’s elite. 

Lillard was born in Oakland, CA and spent most of his youth in the Bay Area. While not heavily recruited in high school, he spent four years at Weber State University and finished as the #2 scorer in school history and was selected with the sixth overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Coming to a sports city known for major injury disappointments(Brandon Roy, Greg Oden, Sam Bowie, etc.), expectations were not too high but it did not matter to Lillard. Although unable to lead Portland to the 2013 playoffs, Lillard delivered hope, being named the unanimous Rookie of the Year and to the All-Rookie First Team. He finished the season with averages of 19.0 points, 6.5 assists, 3.1 rebounds on 43% shooting, 37% from deep. 

Portland came out swinging to start the 2013-14 season, racing out to the best record in the west. The continued improvement of not only Lillard but teammates LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wes Matthews(as well as the addition of big man Robin Lopez) had Portland as many analysts’ early season favorite to come out of the difficult western conference. While they slowed down just a bit in the middle of the grinding 82 game campaign that is the NBA regular season, Lillard again delivered some fabulous performances, as well as back-to-back game winning jumpers against Detroit and Cleveland (both on the road). Lillard was named an All Star for the first time in his career and is the only player in NBA history to compete in all 6 events at All Star weekend, taking home the Skills Challenge crown for the second straight year. He finished his marvelous sophomore season with averages of 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and shot career highs from the three-point line (39%) and free throw line (87%). Little did we know, he’d save his best for what was yet to come. 

Portland entered the 2014 playoffs with a record of 54-28, good enough for the 5th seed in the west. Going up against a Houston Rockets team with stars like James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Blazers were considered the underdog heading into the series. Game 1 was a coming-out party for not only young Lillard (31 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists) but for teammate LaMarcus Aldridge (46 points, 18 rebounds) as well. Down 3 with under 30 ticks to go, Lillard calmly rose up and buried a three pointer to tie the game, and Portland would go on to win in OT. The Blazers would go on to take 3-1 series lead. After Houston took Game 5 at home, the Blazers were heading back to the Moda Center with a 3-2 series lead and a perfect chance to close out the talented Rockets on their home court. 

After five games of sweaty palms and racing hearts, Portland fans got what they have been waiting 14 long years for. With 0.9 left on the clock, Portland was trailing by two. The crowd was quiet, nervous. The Rockets had played a marvelous game and it looked as if they were taking it back home for a decisive Game 7. What happened next will go down in NBA playoff history forever and something I will not soon forget. Lillard raced over the top of the arc from the right-wing and in one smooth, fluid motion, released the shot with time left on the clock. Bottom. Nothing but net. The Moda Center exploded in cheers, Lillard’s teammates bear hugged him all the way back to the Portland bench. The series was over, and the Trail Blazers became the second team to advance to the conference semifinals. 

Lillard’s point totals in the series were phenomenal: 31, 18, 30, 23, 26, 25. He was the unprecedented leader on the floor down the stretch, and is now drawing many comparisons to former Blazer Brandon Roy, who also had a knack for coming up huge when it mattered most. Like him or not, Damian Lillard has proven that he belongs in the conversation with the elite point guards in this game and after what we’ve all witnessed so far it will be very surprising if he does end up without a ring. Portland will move on to play San Antonio in round 2 (teams split the season series 2-2). Game 1 will be Tuesday, May 6th at 9:30 PM ET on TNT.

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