Summary List Placement
There might be no better time in the NBA right now than “Dame Time.”
Damian Lillard has led the Portland Trail Blazers to six straight wins and nine of their last 11, while sending shockwaves through the league with his late-game heroics.
For the season, Lillard is averaging 29.8 points per game on 45% shooting, 38% from three, while grabbing 4.4 rebounds and dishing 7.7 assists per game.
But his recent play down the stretch has garnered him MVP consideration, no small feat in this year’s crowded MVP race.
Lillard leads the NBA in scoring in the “clutch,” which the NBA defines as the last five minutes of a game with the score within five points.
Lillard has scored 88 points in 57 minutes of “clutch” play. At a time when baskets are harder to come by, Lillard is shooting a ridiculous 63% from the field, 58% from three, and 100% from the line, hitting all 24 of his free throw attempts. He also has 14 assists.
The Blazers have a 12-3 record in those moments, which have come to be known as “Dame Time.”
On Tuesday, Lillard helped the Blazers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder by scoring or assisting on the Blazers’ last 18 points.
Blazers center Enes Kanter told reporters after the win over the Thunder: “I’ve never seen anything like this before, and I’ve played with some really great players. It’s wild. He’s like a cheat code … there’s no way to guard him.”
After the game, Lillard explained his philosophy for taking over games late. The 5-time All-NBA player told reporters that he cherishes meeting the challenge and that if he fails, he’s capable of shouldering the blame.
“When the moment comes — the moment of truth, I guess — where it’s time to win or lose, a play needs to be made, a shot needs to be made, the team needs to be lifted up, just being able to recognize that moment and take yourself to that place mentally,” Lillard said. “To where, regardless of what kind of game it has been, embrace this moment, embrace this opportunity to rise up, and have a moment when it’s most needed.
“I think when I recognize those situations, it’s almost like on the inside, I get excited. I don’t want to be in those situations, but when those moments come, I literally feel something on the inside. Like, alright, this is one of those moments where you gotta will something right here. You gotta find something right here.”
Lillard added: “In my mind I’m like, I’m about to impose myself for this last four-and-a-half minutes. And if it don’t work out, I’m gonna make that decision, or I’m gonna be the deciding factor in that.”
Against the Thunder, Lillard’s end-of-game shots gradually grew more dramatic and enthralling, hitting deep threes over solid defense.
On Wednesday, Lillard topped himself to help the Blazers beat the New Orleans Pelicans, finishing with 43 points and 16 assists. He scored 8 points on 3-of-3 shooting, with 3 assists in the final five minutes.
The Pelicans knew it was coming, too — they attempted to trap Lillard when he crossed half-court. Instead, Lillard went around the defense, drew a crowd, and found Derrick Jones Jr. on a cut to the basket.
On the next play, he drove to the basket, took a bump from Lonzo Ball, then hit falling layup, plus the foul, to give the Blazers the lead for good.
Of course, there was also the game against the Chicago Bulls on January 30, when Lillard hit two three-pointers in 11 seconds, including a buzzer-beater, to give the Blazers the win.
That Lillard and the Blazers are doing this short-handed is even more impressive. The Blazers are currently without three of their projected starters in Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Lillard’s second-hand man C.J. McCollum, who is averaging 25 points per game this season.
As Lillard noted, the frequency of these tight moments where he must be the hero isn’t a great thing for the team. The Blazers have the league’s fifth-best record but are only a +20 on the season in scoring margin, 13th in the NBA. Winning so many close games isn’t always a great indicator for a team’s long-term success.
However, Lillard is helping the Blazers squeak by without some of their best players. Lillard’s teammates will eventually be able to take some pressure off of him and keep the team out of these close finishes. If and when the Blazers get healthy, they look like a potential contender — a deeper, more versatile version of the team that made the Western Conference Finals in 2018-19.
And if needed, Portland knows it has the best closer in the NBA.