There was less than a second left. Nine tenths of a second, to be exact. To the right of me was Portland writer Mike Acker. To my left, Dustin Hawes, then a member of the Portland Trail Blazers social media team. Stationed at the top of the 100 level, directly behind the Blazers basket, we stood braced for what would become the biggest moment for the franchise since winning the NBA draft lottery in 2007.
Then it happened. The whistle blew, the play began. Streaking across the 3-point line, open by a margin so wide it had to be a mirage, was Portland’s star point guard. He clapped three times, caught the ball, and released.
After the leather found the net, and the horn sounded, the adage of “there’s no cheering in the press box” was thrown out the window. This was no time for decorum. It was time to hug, embrace, and jump. First with Mike, then with Dustin. Then back to Mike. It felt like it lasted forever, even though it happened in the blink of an eye.
But this? This was bigger.
Damian Lillard’s shot on Tuesday night to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder and send the Trail Blazers into the second round was a massive moment for this franchise. Whatever we are going to call it — The Shot 2.0, The Wave, The Bad Shot, 37 — we have to recognize what it means for the Blazers to advance to the next round in this fashion.
Lillard has cemented himself as one of the top point guards in the league, both with his offensive prowess and his ability to come up big on defense. Driving to the gym on Wednesday morning, I found myself switching the dial back and forth between multiple national radio broadcasts. Each deep, hair-gelled voice was talking about the Blazers, Lillard, the wave, and the shot. It was surreal.
But all this attention belies the fact Portland was in a bad way heading into this season.
After being swept by the New Orlean Pelicans last year, the team seemed on the verge of flying apart, the centrifugal force of the churning NBA season too much for them to bear.
These playoffs, the very ones that started just 10 days ago, held something potentially franchise-altering before they began. Latent beneath the surface was the fact that, if this postseason went like the two that came before it, things were headed for change in Rip City.
But, here the Blazers are.
Terry Stotts, once a potential candidate to be released from his duties, now has the bargaining power to extend his stay with Blazers past his contract end date of 2020. Stotts has won two Coach of the Month awards this season, and those around the league hold him in high regard for his work in Portland. At this point, rather than deciding whether to keep Stotts, the team’s problem might be fending off other suitors impressed with his ability to adapt and gameplan in the postseason.
Now more than ever, it seems unlikely that GM Neil Olshey will field any offers for CJ McCollum, who slowly came on during the course of the season in his new role and was a big part of why the Blazers played so well against the Thunder in the first round. McCollum made several big shots down the stretch for Portland, and the Blazers no longer seem susceptible to a critical weakness being exploited.
The ripple effect from Lillard's series-ending shot continues on from there. With confidence in the backcourt pairing at an all-time high, so too is support for role players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, and Evan Turner. All of them contributed in one way or another on Tuesday, regardless of their impact on the box score.
And that's the real story of Damian Lillard's big shot.
The history books will spin tales of his bold, 37-foot bomb. But the recovery of the Blazers to come back from a deficit, including an 8-0 run starting with three-and-a-half minutes to go in the fourth quarter, was a team effort.
It was a hard close by Seth Curry on Dennis Schroder with 3:15 to go. It was Aminu coming over for what would have been a block on Westbrook when Lillard took a charge with 1:55. It was McCollum calling out the Thunder play with 1:30 so that everyone could react accordingly, eventually resulting in a Blazers rebound. It was Curry going for the steal and forcing a turnover with 1:13 on George.
Damian Lillard's shot is going to go down as one of the most incredible individual accomplishments in NBA history. No player has hit two game-winning shots to end a playoff series in NBA history. He has already written his own name into the annals of league lore. But Lillard’s shot casts a special light on the value of his teammates, and worked as a credit to his coaching staff.
Yes, Lillard’s shot won the series. But it might also have saved this version of the Trail Blazers as we know them. Not even Damian’s shot against the Rockets had that big an impact.
This Portland team is going to look different next season no matter what. Aminu, Curry, and Kanter are all major contributors who are not under contract next season. Stotts’ position is up in the air. Olshey’s deal ends in 2021. Which come back and which leave has yet to be decided, but beating the Thunder is a vote for the idea that, hey, this core might actually work.
This team that has always been criticized for not changing enough from season to season. Now, ironically, things could stay the same more than ever, all thanks to one of the coldest game-winners in NBA playoff history.
That brings us back to 0.9, and the Houston series, and a core that Portland decided to eventually let go. In fact, Lillard’s 2014 shot came on the cusp of a team that did eventually break up. Just a year after 0.9, much of Portland’s roster was gone.
This time, Lillard’s shot could be the thing that holds the Blazers together.
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