SACRAMENTO – In the days leading up to his 50-point game Friday in Sacramento, it was evident something was brewing inside Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard.
He had become shorter in conversation. And his normal countenance ran deeper, and more focused.
It was not that Lillard had become distant or unfriendly to those around him, but it was as if something was weighing on his mind.
Turns out, there was.
On the flight home from Detroit on Monday, still fresh the sting of a blowout loss to the Pistons that gave the Blazers a three-game losing streak, Lillard said he had a personal pep talk.
“It’s time to go,’’ Lillard recounted saying to himself about the season.
By “go” he meant it was time to put his foot on the gas and accelerate the Blazers’ season.
“Take control of the situation,’’ Lillard explained. “That’s what you have to do sometimes – take control of the situation and take it upon yourself.’’
His first game after the Detroit declaration was Thursday against Charlotte in Portland. It was one of his worst games of the season – 6-for-22 from the field and more turnovers (4) than assists or rebounds. The Blazers held a 22-5 lead to open the game, and then had a 17-point lead with seven minutes left, yet still had to eke out the win in overtime.
So on Friday, when he arrived in Sacramento – a place the Blazers lost earlier this season – there was a perfect storm of motivation, dedication and predication.
“I had a certain feeling about this game,’’ Lillard said. “That we had to have it.’’
For two in a half quarters, whether the Blazers would beat the Kings was in question. When Zach Randolph rebounded his own miss with 4:25 left, the Kings were within 75-74.
Then, Lillard took over.
It started with Lillard driving for a layin. Then he stripped Kings’ prized rookie De’Aaron Fox. Then he passed to CJ McCollum for a layin. Then he scored the next 13 points in a row.
All told, the Blazers had gone on a 17-0 run and Lillard had scored 15 of them, pushing him to 50 points at the end of the third quarter in just 29:29 of playing time.
By now, impassioned play at crucial times have become a hallmark of Lillard’s career. Each season, he seems to sense when, and how, the Blazers need their boost. In 2014, his second season, he initiated a spirited team meeting in the San Antonio locker room. In 2016, he led a late-season charge with a flurry of high-scoring first quarters that helped the Blazers win three straight road games. And last season, with, some help from Jusuf Nurkic, he willed them from nine games below .500 in January to the playoffs, thanks in part to a franchise-record 59-point game against Utah in April.
What is different this season, is Lillard says he feels a little more “urgency” for the Blazers to show progress, and that may be why his hallmark playoff-push is coming earlier than ever.
He said this Blazers team has experienced too many lulls throughout the season – going 4-1 on an East trip only to lose four straight at home, and a recent span of seven wins in eight games followed by a three-game losing streak.
It’s why somewhere over the Midwest, on the return from Detroit, that Lillard had his mental declaration.
“When we were on the flight home, I was like, ‘Going into the (All-Star) break, we have to do this. It has to happen,’’ Lillard said.
So on Friday, he made it happen.
If the weight of a team, and a franchise, has become a burden for Lillard, he is not showing it. Before leaving the Sacramento locker room to share his momentous night with a large segment of his family, Lillard deflected any notion that he was carrying a heavy load.
“To whom much is given, much is expected,’’ he said. “I’m not a three-time All Star in six years for no reason, no matter how you want to slice it. I’m not a max contract player for no reason. That’s what I signed up for.’’