The image that sticks is Raymond Felton, hopelessly twisted, flailing as Damian Lillard steps back into cresting three-pointer that beats the third quarter buzzer as the Moda Center erupts.
If not that, it’s the 30-footer Lillard unleashed mid-way through the third period that led to an immediate timeout and prompted the Blazers point guard to flap his wrists high-above his head, a signal that he later explained meant “let it fly.”
But before the flapping, and before walking into a 30-foot, there was a subtler moment that truly explains this series and should define Game 2. It came on the defensive end and was accompanied by an uncommon show of emotion.
Lillard and the Blazers seized a 2-0 lead in their first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night. The three-pointers will dominate the highlight reels, but Portland earned this win with defense, and Lillard’s effort on that end of the floor was at the center of it.
“You know, I really don’t have a choice but to embrace it,” Lillard said. “That team is going to go as far as (Russell Westbrook) and Paul George. We could try to score points and do all that stuff, but if we don’t defend them and they come out there believing and they come after us, we don’t have much of a chance. So our minds are made up that we’re going to take that challenge. Our season is on the line so that’s probably why it looks different than it might look any other time.”
The Blazers have been solid on defense as a group. Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu have tracked George all over the floor and Rodney Hood and Evan Turner have had their own impressive moments on the defensive end. But Lillard’s individual defense has been key to Portland’s two wins to open the series even as the team has collectively swarmed and harassed the two Thunder stars.
It’s clear Lillard is relishing the challenge of defending Westbrook, as part of a rivalry that has grown sharper teeth this season.
“I mean the proof is in the pudding,” Evan Turner said of Lillard. ”I think he doesn’t really get enough credit for the type of defender he is.”
Westbrook finished Game 2 with 14 points on 5-for-20 shooting, he dished 11 assists but also coughed up six turnovers. Lillard was up for the challenge all night, hounding him on the perimeter and funneling Westbrook towards waiting teammates when he attacked.
It wasn’t long ago that Lillard would have spent most of a night like Game 2 shading Terrance Ferguson, a lesser offensive player that would have allowed the Blazers hide their star player on defense. But Lillard has slowly evolved on the defensive end, growing from liability to the player that emerged Tuesday evening when he grabbed three steals, blocked two shots and embraced the challenge of guarding an All-Star.
Lillard said that his defensive growth is a natural part of playing seven seasons in the league. But it was also fueled by the criticism Lillard often heard early in his career. So Lillard made a commitment to becoming a better defender, spending hours poring over film and working with Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool, a dedication that took particular root in the summer of 2017 and has only grown since.
“I’ve always had the effort. I’ve always cared about it and now I’m a few years deeper into the league and I recognize stuff faster,” Lillard said. “I know what’s coming. I know what guys like to do. I’m not watching film to see highlights of myself. I’m watching film to (see) how can I take advantage of the other team? How can I give myself a chance to play better against the other team? And a lot of that is defensively, going over stuff with Coach Vanterpool. And then going out there and taking the challenge, not backing down. I think the last few seasons I’ve been much better defensively. It hasn’t been just one game or nothing like that. I’ve been taking the challenge and I’ve been much smarter about it.”
The Blazers blew the game open in the third quarter, pushing a halftime tie to a 16 point advantage heading into the fourth. In that stretch you could see how much the defensive stops meant to Lillard.
Midway through the third quarter when Westbrook attacked the paint, Lillard slapped the ball out of his hands cleanly as he tried to rise up near the foul line. The ball was only loose for an instant and Westbrook quickly gathered himself and rose up for a left wing three-pointer.
When he it clanged off the rim, Lillard flexed and emphatically clapped following the hard earned defensive stop. Then he calmly dribbled across mid-court and rose up from 30-feet, drilling the shot over Westbrook.
The image that sticks is the wrist flapping that followed. But rewind a few frames and you see the defining moment of the game, an improving defender embracing the toughest challenge on the biggest stage.
Like Lillard said, with the season on the line everything looks different.