Inside the Trail Blazers’ locker room, after he secured the top scoring performance in franchise history, Damian Lillard on Saturday had one final statistic to add to his record night.
It wasn’t another point to add to his 59-point outburst that propelled the Blazers to an ever-important 101-86 victory over Utah, but rather an assist.
As the Blazers broke their team huddle inside the locker room, Blazers equipment manager Eric Hallman approached Lillard with the game ball. But instead of taking the keepsake for his trophy room, Lillard sent it down the hall to the Jazz locker room and veteran Joe Johnson.
During Saturday’s game, Johnson became the 42nd player in NBA history to amass 20,000 career points.
“So I told them to give it to him,’’ Lillard said. “That’s an accomplishment for him as well.’’
Lillard instead said he would keep his jersey to commemorate the night, which was different from the start. After all, it was Lillard who chose to outfit the Blazers in their road black uniforms for the home game, an idea that came to him after seeing an old picture of Terry Porter and the Blazers in black.
For a night at least, Lillard and these Blazers had more than just the look of Porter and the most hailed era of Blazers. They played like it, too.
Going against one of the NBA’s top defenses, the Blazers tied a franchise record by committing just three turnovers. And going against a Utah team that was trying to lock down homecourt advantage in the playoffs while securing their 50th win, the Blazers played what coach Terry Stotts and Lillard said was their best defensive game of the season, holding Utah to 40.3 percent shooting.
It all put the Blazers (40-40) on the cusp of clinching the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Portland needs to beat either San Antonio on Monday or New Orleans on Wednesday, or have Denver lose one of its three remaining games – Sunday at home against Oklahoma City, Tuesday at Dallas, or Wednesday at Oklahoma City – and the Blazers will clinch a postseason berth and head to the Bay Area for a first round matchup at Golden State.
If the Blazers make the playoffs, many will look back to Lillard’s record performance and the Blazers’ victory Saturday as one of the defining moments.
But to understand the entirety of what is transpiring here, and to appreciate the greatness of Lillard, you will have to go back to the dark days, in February.
It was a night that Lillard left the Moda Center with a distinct feeling.
He was thirsty.
It has been a long road back for the Blazers since the night they left Detroit on the last day of February. Portland was 24-35, a season-high 11 games below .500, and it was on that night Lillard missed a free throw with 10.8 seconds left that could have prevented the game from going to overtime, where the Blazers eventually lost to the Pistons.
If the ending of February was the nadir, Lillard never let anyone feel it. Inside the locker room he kept preaching about embracing the struggle of the season, and reminding his teammates that success is not easy.
On Feb. 13, after another bitter defeat in overtime to Atlanta, which came after Paul Millsap hit a last-second shot to force the extra period, Lillard lamented the team seemed snakebit.
“It just feels like when we are in those situations, the worst possible thing happens … It just feels like we haven’t had great luck,’’ Lillard said after the Atlanta loss.
Nobody wore the losses more than Lillard. But never did he seem defeated, and never did he let the team’s hope waver.
“I’m anxious,’’ Lillard said after the Atlanta loss in Portland. “Anxious to be like, man, we are getting it going … I’m thirsty for that moment.’’
That thirst led him to look at what seemed like a crumbling season and see opportunity.
“I think of it as a test,’’ Lillard said that night. “It’s hard. Everybody has something to say about it, but it’s hard. Sometimes I just tell myself that sometimes you have to go through a struggle. Sometimes it has to be hard on you. I always feel like you go through tough things but you have opportunity to make it special in the end.
“Right now, we are just having a hard time. That’s not to say we accept it, but sometimes you have to grind it out and stay with it, and it will come back to your favor as long as you stay true to what you’ve been doing,’’ Lillard said.
On Saturday, after his 59-point effort that all but completed their comeback, Lillard was reminded of his sermons in February, and before his quotes were recited, he was finishing them.
“…. going to make it sweeter in the end,’’ Lillard said. “But we are not there yet. We’ve climbed, done a lot of climbing to get in this position, and now we are one game from accomplishing what we wanted to get done – and that’s get a playoff spot. That struggle makes us enjoy this – working our way back and feeling some success – it make it feel that much better. Especially when we get this next win and lock it up. We will be feeling good about ourselves and we will appreciate those hard times even more.’’
That Lillard kept not only his outlook, but the team’s focus, on reaching this point is a testament to his leadership and his will to win.
Like Lillard’s assist to Johnson and his 20,000-point milestone, it’s something that won’t show in the boxscore, but goes a long way in defining who Lillard is as a player and person.
And it’s why the Blazers are now one victory, or one Denver loss, away from the playoffs.
Up next: San Antonio at Blazers, 7 p.m. Monday (CSN).