Nothing in sports is scripted. Everything is a heckuva guess. Even the most esteemed organizational mastermind can’t claim clear foresight. Ditto any superstar with total authority over the ball. That’s what makes turning the television on every night so dang entertaining.
Damian Lillard’s story has been one of loyalty and perseverance. In his seven-year career, that has come with only modest payoff in terms of team success despite his rise among the NBA’s elite. Some have questioned why he has stayed with a middling Trail Blazers group. So many superstars before him fled mediocrity for more assured routes to a championship.
But Lillard stayed, citing his devotion for the under-appreciated city of Portland. That loyalty makes sense given his upbringing as an overlooked high school prospect-turned low Division 1-level college player. And his allegiance was finally given its just reward Sunday with the Blazers’ Game 7 win over the Denver Nuggets to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years.
Lillard’s reaction was captured perfectly in a 36-second video posted by the Trail Blazers’ team account. It showed Lillard going through an emotional journey — from giddiness to euphoria to total astonishment — on his way from the court to the locker room.
In the first seconds, a skipping Lillard high-fives fans who traveled from Oregon to Denver for the game. His face lights up as someone yelled his trademark “Dame Time” slogan from above. As he leaves the view of the 20,000-plus in attendance, he clenches his hands together over his head in pure bliss. He seems to be at the point of tears when, at the end, he reaches out to general manager Neil Olshey for a hug.
These moments were everything for Lillard. They were validation for the biggest career decisions of his life.
“When I say this is where I want to be, that’s how I feel,” Lillard told SB Nation’s Paul Flannery in March. “If it comes a time when they don’t feel that way anymore, then I respect that. It’s not about loyalty and all that stuff. It’s about who I am and how I feel about the situation I’m in.
“If they decide that they don’t feel that way anymore, then that’s fine. People say, well one day they won’t be loyal to you no more, that’s not what it’s about to me. I’m doing this because this is who I am. So that’s just what it is.”
Portland wasn’t supposed to make it to the conference finals right now — nor maybe ever with the core in its current construction. That’s what made the win that much more special.
The Blazers still look much like the team that was swept in the opening round of last year’s playoffs, their lack of offseason moves leading to criticism from fans and media over the summer. Then, just before the postseason, starting center Jusuf Nurkic went down for the year with a gruesome leg injury. Yet Lillard, alongside co-star C.J. McCollum, outlasted a championship-hopeful Oklahoma City Thunder and an on-the-rise Nuggets.
For many surface-level fans, this Lillard moment will be overlooked. The NBA is often chided for its “rings culture,” the idea that a player’s legacy is built on championships, and the lack thereof is a stain impossible to wipe away. It’s why Kevin Durant ran to Golden State, LeBron James to Miami, etc. And in fairness, this series win likely won’t hang in the Blazers’ rafters. This team could still get smoked by Steph Curry’s Warriors, after all.
But the moment deserves to be appreciated. A win like this for Lillard and Portland is the very reason we obsess over the ups and downs of a ridiculously long 82-game season. The win came on Lillard’s own terms, with the team he bought into in Portland. This was years in the making.
The most heartening part is Lillard found so much joy even though he struggled. He had all of 13 points on 3-of-17 shooting in Game 7, by far his worst game of the season and a far cry from his 37-foot buzzer-beating step-back night against the Thunder.
But the moment was about more than Lillard’s individual success. It was about fulfilling his own standards. This moment was never guaranteed for Lillard, who’s committed the most important years of his career to a team because of a gut feeling. There was a chance the Blazers would never succeed at a level to match his commitment. That they did it in the way he wanted is a small miracle that no one could say they saw coming.
And now nothing can take this moment away.