Damian Lillard Is Mr. Portland
9:19 AM EST on December 20, 2022
On Monday night, Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard became the franchise's all-time leading scorer, passing Hall-of-Famer Clyde Drexler's previous high mark of 18,040 points. Lillard got to the record a year quicker than Drexler did, and given that he is 32 years old and locked into a max contract until the summer of 2025, he's going to put some meaningful distance between himself and Drexler before his career in Portland is over. Lillard will certainly end up as the greatest player in franchise history, if he isn't already today.
Lillard claimed his record with 28 points in a performance that was particularly fitting of his career. There was the audacious and efficient three-point shooting—he hit 6-of-12 from behind the arc—coupled with the clutch shot-making that the Blazers have come to rely on over the past decade. On two possessions at the end of the game, with the Blazers trailing by two, Lillard charged to the rim and converted a reverse layup to tie the game. Both plays functioned as a good reminder that for as much as Lillard's career is fairly associated with the three-point shot, it's been his touch and bravery around the rim that's made him such a complete scorer:
The result of the game was just as fitting of Lillard's big night as his performance. That's because by the time the buzzer sounded he had, once again, been overshadowed by another one of the league's stars. This time it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, averaging 31 points per game in his fourth season, who rose above and cast a shadow.
Lillard has never been anything other than a great player, but it won't be his name that appears in the first line of any story that is told about his generation. When it comes time to talk about the three-point revolution that gripped this era of the NBA, one that Lillard is just as responsible for igniting as anyone else, people will talk about Steph Curry. When the discussion turns to this generation's best pure scorers, Kevin Durant and James Harden will be the first names to leave anyone's lips. Any ranking of iconic clutch moments will likely file Lillard's wave goodbye to the Thunder behind LeBron's block and Kawhi's shot from the corner. This is not to speak ill of Lillard; the fact that "Dame Time" is a phrase that anyone outside of Portland revels in shouting is evidence of how good he is. To approach icon status while spending a career on a West Coast team that's best known for piling up first-round playoff exits is not something that just any guy with a nice jumper can achieve.
If there is one story about the league that Lillard is most likely to earn a starring role in, it will unfortunately be about one of the sport's most annoying subjects: player loyalty. Lillard has spent his entire career in Portland without ever requesting a trade (or at least without failing to deny any report that he has requested a trade), which is a circumstance that both Lillard and his most ardent supporters have occasionally waved around as evidence of his superior character and competitive drive. It's impossible not to be annoyed by guys who wield the phrase "player-empowerment era" like a slur trying to saint Lillard for not having yet left Portland, but we can still appreciate what his commitment to the city has meant without pretending that it is undergirded by personal virtue any more so than the restrictions of the salary cap.
Lillard sticking it out with the Blazers has thus far given fans of the team more than a decade of competitive basketball to enjoy. Everyone wants to see their team win a championship, but also everyone just wants a team that they can spend 60–70 nights cheering for from their couches and not feel like they are at the dentist. That's a gift that players like Lillard have a singular ability to present to NBA fans, and it's not one that should be discounted. Lillard's name will always be filed behind Curry's in any sorting of achievements, but I doubt the people in Portland will ultimately care too much about that. What they'll always care about is the number of times Lillard turned just another December game against the Thunder into something worth watching.
There's one more place where Lillard's grip on the collective memory will remain tight, and that's in the minds of fans who had the displeasure of rooting against him. I'm one of those people, and I can tell you honestly that there is no player that I have felt more fear and anguish toward over the past decade than Lillard. I know firsthand what it's like to see my team get blended up by the Warriors' various deathly forms, but not even those teams inspired panic and fear quite like Lillard can. There's always been something ruder, meaner, about his style of play, such that every time I saw him pull up from 34 feet and drain a three against my team, I felt like I was being bullied. That's the other marker of a truly meaningful player, not just his ability to delight and inspire, but to demoralize. Portland has been lucky to have a guy like that for so long; I desperately hope that he heads east.
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