LOS ANGELES – By now, we know we are watching something special with Damian Lillard. One of the best stretches ever by a Trail Blazers player is becoming one of the best seasons by a Blazers player, which will likely go a long way in eventually cementing him as one of, if not the greatest clutch performers to ever wear a Blazers’ uniform.
On Monday, Lillard scored 19 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter, including 15 straight in a three-minute span, to lead the Blazers to their seventh straight victory, a come-from-behind 108-103 stunner over the Lakers.
When it comes to late-game performances, Lillard has become so good, so often, that his teammates have said they have moments in games where they are in amazement.
“I don’t marvel at a lot of things,’’ said Shabazz Napier, who won back-to-back NCAA titles at UConn. “A lot of things don’t get to me. But today was … today was spectacular. The one he did in Phoenix, I wasn’t so hyped. But today, I was like; Wow. In the game, I was like: Wow.’’
To those in Portland, we know it is not just Lillard’s physical talents that allow him to amass such an impressive collection of late-game heroics.
A large part of his success comes from a special mind.
After Monday’s heroics, Blazers assistant David Vanterpool gave some insight into Lillard’s mindset. Vanterpool has mentored Lillard from Day One in Portland. Nobody on the Blazers’ staff has spent more time with Lillard studying film, or going through workouts, or getting inside the mind of the now 27-year-old.
I asked him what stood out about this performance, or what we don’t see while we are watching it unfold.
Vanterpool thought for a second, then his eyes sparkled. He smiled.
“He knows that’s going to happen,’’ he said. “What he just did, that’s not by mistake. Mentally, he’s already seen it. He’s prepared, he’s put in the work, and that’s why it’s not a surprise to him.
“He already feels it, he already knows it,’’ Vanterpool said. “What he did tonight is more like him finishing a movie he has already seen in his mind.’’
He shook his head, and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say “only the great ones have that.”
Minutes before, in the locker room, Lillard ho-hummed his way through interviews, matter-of-factly recounting what was going through his mind.
“I looked at the clock and there was a lot of time, and I said ‘I’m about to try take this on one, and bring it home,’ ’’ Lillard said.
He brought it home, all right.
Never before has Lillard played better, and never before has he deserved to be included in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. He might not be the best player in the league, but considering what he does and what he means in Portland, there might not be a player who is more valuable to his franchise.
After setting the franchise scoring record for a month with a 31.4 average in February, Lillard has the Blazers in third place in the West, and particularly in the last month, he has flat-out willed the team to victories.
Up ahead are the Knicks on Tuesday, then a two-week gauntlet that features games against Golden State, Cleveland, Boston and Houston.
Right now, the Blazers have to figure that all they have to do is keep it close and get the game to Lillard Time. After that, the movie has already played in his mind.
“Regardless of how the game is going,’’ Lillard said Monday. “I’m always going to feel like when the time comes, I can make it happen.’’