Damian Lillard Put Up The Purest 71 Points Ever Scored
8:49 AM EST on February 27, 2023
Damian Lillard scored 71 points in a 131-114 win over the Houston Rockets last night. The Rockets are the worst and worst-coached team in the NBA, we are in the middle of a historic NBA scoring boom, and Lillard is not even the first player this season to score 71, but none of those circumstances take anything away from it. He played beautiful, ridiculous, historic basketball, and there is nothing to say about his night other than to call it one of the greatest performances in NBA history.
The magic is in the details. Lillard had 41 points at halftime on 13-of-19 shooting. The Rockets kept it just close enough to justify Lillard staying on the floor for all but four minutes of the second half, and by late in the fourth quarter the Blazers had established a big-enough lead to justify Lillard gunning for the hoop on every possession. You can sneer at him taking 12 shots in the fourth quarter if you really want to be a grouch, but what you can't sneer at is his final line: 71 points, 22-of-38 from the floor, 13 made threes.
It's worth comparing Lillard's 71 points to the 71 points Donovan Mitchell scored earlier this season, and to the 70 Devin Booker scored in 2017. To be frank, those games don't even really belong in the same breath as Lillard's. Mitchell had 58 points at the end of regulation during his big night, and scored the final 13 in a scintillating overtime period that was nevertheless made possible by a blatant rule violation. Booker, on the other hand, needed 40 field-goal attempts, 45 minutes, and 26 freakin' free throws in order to hit 70 in a game his team lost by 10 points. Lillard's night sparkles by comparison: he was aided by just 14 free throws, played a relatively normal 39 minutes, and came one made three-pointer short of tying Klay Thompson's record for most made threes in a game. Lillard's true-shooting percentage on the night was 80.4; if there have been 10 other instances in which 71 or more points have been scored in an NBA game, it has never been done so efficiently.
At this point you may be wondering why there have yet to be any highlights in this post. I admit that not putting them right after the lede was a bit rude—when a guy scores 71 damn points you want to see those points!—but there is a good reason for the delay. I wanted to talk about how efficient Lillard's night was first, because that's the word, "efficient," that I want you to keep in your head as you watch this:
Yes, Lillard's night was by definition efficient, but have you ever encountered an adjective less equipped to accurately convey the nature of what it describes? You hear the word "efficient" and you think of open shots from corner and well-executed pin-downs leading to open catch-and-shoot threes. You do not think of the bugfuck madness that was on display in this game. I count at least five made threes that were launched 30 feet or more away from the basket. The number of pull-up jumpers alone, taken without a moment's hesitation or heed of the closing defender, is enough to get the heart rate up. These are the kind of shots that are supposed to get you benched, not granted ownership over the cleanest 71 points in NBA history.
Anyone who has spent any time watching Lillard play basketball knows that doesn't tell the whole story, though. He's dedicated an entire career to proving that a 32-foot pull-up is in fact a steady and dependable shot when he's the one taking it. It's just that he'd never packed so many of his signature shots into such a tight space before Sunday night. That's what makes this performance such a fitting monument to Lillard's career. Never has one game better summarized his ability to take what shouldn't be—a barrage of shots taken from way beyond what any reasonable person would call shooting range—and make it what is—an efficient scoring night.
I can't help but wonder what basketball fans in 30 or 40 years will think of Lillard's 71 points while idly scrolling Basketball Reference on their neural implants. They'll notice the 80.4 true-shooting percentage, and those who haven't seen any oversaturated, two-dimensional Lillard highlights might imagine a guy taking over the game with the sort of classically efficient shot selection I described above. When that happens, I hope some old bastard is there to set the youngsters straight, to slap one of them across the face and say, You don't fucking understand, man. Damian Lillard was a sicko. He was a messed-up guy. Everyone who was in the arena that night went home with a 100-degree fever and blurred vision.
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