What is there even left to say about Damian Lillard’s shot-making abilities? After last night’s unwavering assault on the Denver Nuggets—during which Lillard scored 55 points, single-handedly erased several this-game-should-be-over leads, and twice sent to game to overtime in frankly disgusting fashion—it feels like everything is on the table. Has there ever been a greater clutch shooter than Damian Lillard? Is there any player in the world you’d trust more to drag his team out of a deficit? Is Damian Lillard in fact a demon sent from hell? If you are someone who just woke up this morning and read a few recaps of last night’s game, then maybe these questions seem silly to you. But if you saw it, if you sat on your couch in the dark and felt your face twist into a rictus of shock over the course of a few hours, then you are probably nodding along with my queries.
So, anyway, Lillard scored 55 points with 12 threes in a double-overtime Game 5 loss to the Denver Nuggets. He hit a 28-foot step-back jumper with 3.7 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 121 and send it to its first overtime. During that overtime, the Nuggets managed to build a nine-point lead with 2:16 left to play. Lillard erased it by scoring the Blazers’ next 12 points, the last three of which came on yet another step-back beyond the arc. Surrounding all of that was another collection of big shots, each of which in any other context could have qualified as the biggest of the game. Such was Lillard’s mastery that the 31-foot three he banked in during the second overtime may not even make future highlight reels of this game.
There are certainly other players in the league with the skills and the fortitude necessary to do the things Lillard did last night. Steph Curry exists, Kyrie Irving exists, Kevin Durant exists. That Lillard is a contemporary of those and other great players is the reason why so many of his signature moments have been confined to ultimately fruitless playoff runs, and why you wouldn’t ever expect anyone to argue that Lillard is an objectively better basketball player than any of those other stars who have gone further and won more than he has. But Lillard does have something that none of those other guys do, and that is a grand capacity for cruelty. When Lillard fully enters Dame Time—which does not involve him cynically baiting defenders into fouls on the perimeter, or meticulously crafting open looks through the offense, or wildly attacking the rim and hoping for the best—there is no meaner sight in sports. There’s just a guy, pulling up from 25–35 feet over and over and over again, making shots that nobody can do a single thing to stop. Things got so bad last night that a rare Lillard miss had Austin Rivers literally thanking God while the game was going on around him.
I feel qualified to speak to the lasting torment that these moments can cause. The Nuggets are my favorite NBA team—my favorite team in all of sports!—and just hours ago I watched them win one of the greatest playoff games I’ve ever seen. I saw Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris and even Austin damn Rivers play wonderful, thrilling basketball and deliver one of the greatest wins in the history of the franchise. And yet I did not really enjoy watching any of that in the moment, because Damian Lillard was also on the floor. After a while, every great play the Nuggets made, every point they added to their lead, just started to feel like set-ups for Lillard’s next brutal knockout punch.
Even now, several hours and a decent night’s sleep later, I still feel terrorized by Damian Lillard. The sun was shining through my window this morning and I could hear the birds chirping, but what was that flicker of movement I noticed at the edge of the yard? Was that Lillard, aiming a crossbow at me? Why did I feel a strange buzzing sensation in my head while making coffee? Was Lillard pointing a top-secret microwave gun at my head from across the street? Is he standing behind me right now? Lillard suffered a devastating double-overtime playoff loss to my favorite team, and somehow I’m the one who feels haunted. That’s a power of Lillard’s that I don’t think any other athlete in professional sports can claim.