Tuesday night, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers exploded for 55 points in a Game 5 loss against Nikola Jokic’s Denver Nuggets in the first round of this year’s NBA playoffs. But this performance was so much more than what the box score suggested. A story of redemption, divine intervention, and a sequence of improbable events reared its head in the greatest individual shooting performance in playoff history.
Everyone put this game on the backburner. The game received no national coverage due to a compressed schedule, overlapping with the Lakers-Suns marquee matchup on TNT. Lebron James and Chris Paul- two friends turned rivals in a supposedly heated Game 5– is a great storyline that everyone’s tuned into.
But it was a 30-point deficit for the Lakers at halftime- completely unexpected. Unless you enjoyed a good beatdown, you were switching to the Blazers-Nuggets series in indignation.
The Blazers scored one point in the first five minutes, a measly free-throw, and quickly dug themselves in a 20-point deficit by the second quarter. Two potential blowouts in the PLAYOFFS? That added with the NBA’s scheduling dilemma and it makes sense why the league’s ratings are plummeting.
There’s a common proverb in basketball: superstars will be superstars, but the role players (the supporting cast) are the deciding factor. The Blazers’ role players were extremely lackadaisical and Lillard knew that to win, he needed to be more than a superstar. He needed to be transcendental.
The Nuggets were up by a large margin and let go of the rope, so to speak. Lillard sensed the Nuggets’ complacence and turned nuclear.
The final possession of regulation– the ball was inbounded to Damian Lillard, clearing the floor out for an isolation against Nuggets guard, Austin Rivers. He rises for the shot, even slightly loses the ball in the air, misses. BUT A FOUL WAS CALLED. Three free–throws with a chance to tie the game. Unreal.
Rivers is irate. He’s probably thinking “there’s no way that’s a foul, I barely touched him! Contact is inevitable with the added physicality of the playoffs and the ref should hold their whistle for anything less blatant.”
He gestures to his head coach Mike Malone to “challenge” the call on the floor, in an attempt to reverse the 3 free–throws.
And it was successful! Kinda. There was a foul, but it was before Lillard exhibited the shooting motion, which means the ball would be re-inbounded for a do-over. At least that’s better than 3 free–throws. Right?
Lillard gets the ball back with 6’10 forward Michael Porter Jr on him. A more challenging defender than Rivers, but that night, the stars aligned.
Lillard hits a sidestep three–pointer over MPJ, mirroring his acclaimed shot over Paul George to dismantle the OKC Thunder franchise two years ago. MPJ should’ve done his research, this is Damian Lillard!
Denver starts off the OT making three threes, creating a nine-point cushion at the 2:14 mark. Portland uses a timeout to temporarily stop the bleeding. Out of the timeout, Lillard puts his head down with a sharp behind-the-back layup + the foul.
Jokic responds with a one-leg turnaround floater, demonstrating yet again why he’s the presumptive MVP of the league. And this opened the floodgates.
Lillard hit back-to-back threes at the 0:22 mark. Portland is forced to foul to regain possession. They foul Monte Morris, who misses a free-throw (very rare), leaving the door open for Lillard to enter. Three point game.
Lillard has Morris on him, does a quick in-and-out dribble, drives, and spins out to the three-point line. He shoots, gets a nice slap on the wrist for good measure (a missed foul call) and absolutely drills it. It’s beginning to feel like déjà vu. Maybe Daméjà vu.
Lillard did a quick layup to start the second OT, and later made a high arcing three-point shot off the backboard that had no business going in. A bank-shot? He couldn’t miss if he wanted to.
“This a spiritual experience,” Kevin Durant tweeted after tuning in. “God mode.” Very high praise from arguably the most prolific scorer in NBA history.
Lillard finally missed a three and Austin Rivers, his primary cover throughout the game, did a praying gesture, thanking God mid-overtime. Divine intervention (and his teammates) were the only things that could stop Lillard.
And his prayers were answered.
MPJ ended up redeeming himself for his initial defensive lapse, hitting a dagger three in the corner which was set up by a beautiful (and overlooked) pass from Jokic at the 1:33 mark. A 3-point game, Blazers move.
Lillard brought up the ball up the court for the final possession down 3 in the second OT. He passes the ball to CJ McCollum, perhaps to reorganize himself for a third straight game-tying shot.
But McCollum stepped out of bounds. Nuggets win– a disappointment not just for Blazers fans, but all fans alike.
There were many defensive fallacies that the Nuggets committed in crunch time that the Blazers failed to capitalize on.
Denver, for some reason, refused to over-index on Damian Lillard. Lillard’s teammates shot a combined 1-14 in both OTs, torturous to say the least. And it wasn’t like the Nuggets had a particularly monolithic defense. Lillard was sent no double–teams all game, which is entertaining for us as fans, but presents a clear defensive miscue.
It also may seem counterintuitive to purposely foul, but at that point, it’s wise to choose free-throws over a potential Lillard three-point barrage. Playing the foul game to burn the clock, which again isn’t exciting as fans to watch, would be an effective strategy. This is attributable to how dynamic of a shooter he is.
“It’s a shame we wasted one of all–time performances by not being more supportive of him,” McCollum told ESPN’s Royce Young. It was a wasted opportunity, one that the Blazers will have to get over quickly due to a short two-day turnaround for Game 6.
Unfortunately, team success and individual heroics are not concomitant. Star players place a larger burden on themselves to perform at a higher level to compensate for the shortcomings of the rest of the team. This is typical of the largest scoring bursts in NBA history, often of which come at a price.
Cynics would discuss this performance with an asterisk– no victory and no bragging rights. And Lillard would agree with them.
“It don’t matter. We lost the game. At this point all that matters is we can’t lose another game in the series,” Lillard said when asked about his performance postgame.
You admire the humility but come on. Lillard broke the record for the most threes in a playoff game with 12, eclipsing Klay Thompson’s 11 set in 2016. Jokic had a near 40-point triple double, but it pales in comparison to Lillard’s 55-10-6 on 17-24 from the field (70.8 %) Statistically, this was the most efficient postseason game ever. Not to mention TWO shots to tie the game at the buzzer. He sucked the oxygen out the stadium, and it’s hard enough to breathe with Denver’s increased altitude.
The series is now 3-2 Denver. It’s a best of seven, which means the Blazers have their work cut out for them.
But they’ve been in this exact situation before. In the 2019 Western conference semifinals, Portland faced this very Denver team down 2-3 where they ended up winning the series, as well as a four-overtime Game 3 in 2019 that eerily parallels this one. History could repeat itself.