Confidence is high with Al-Farouq Aminu's ball handling... and it's showing

Confidence is high with Al-Farouq Aminu's ball handling... and it's showing

The seconds are ticking off the clock.

It’s a three-point game.

Damian Lillard’s tough floater gets blocked.

Al-Farouq Aminu snags the offensive rebound and puts in a 9-foot bank shot.

Four seconds remaining on the clock when the Pistons call a timeout.

It was a crazy finish on Saturday night in Portland. It’s Aminu who seals the deal in a Trail Blazers gritty win over the Pistons by a final score of 117-112.

“I knew the shot clock was low, so I just wanted to get it off the glass. I didn’t want to rush it. Sometimes when you’re in that predicament you rush it because you’re thinking you’re going against the clock and I figured, let me at least make it and see if it was late or not,” Aminu said with a smile.  

Portland continues to play without CJ McCollum (left knee) and continues to rack up wins from a collective effort with role players continuing to step up.

Saturday night was Aminu’s night.  

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said postgame he was pleased with Chief’s “heads up playmaking,” which is a perfect way to describe that last Trail Blazers possession.

Aminu finished with a season-high 22 points and has now reached double figured for the second time in the last three games. His previous high was 20 points, which he had reached twice this season.

Is there a variable to Aminu’s game that people aren’t talking about when it comes to him getting more buckets?

How about his ball handling skills?

Coach Stotts has no doubt that this is one aspect of Chief’s game that has changed this year.

“I think it’s pretty obvious -- his ball handling has really improved this year. He’s made some nice drives throughout the season. He put a lot of time into it. He’s making some nice moves, whether it’s in transition or in the half court. I think he’s being aggressive when he has a chance,” Stotts said.

As Lillard shouldered the scoring load once again, leading the Blazers with 28 points and nine assists, he couldn’t agree more with his coach when it comes to Aminu’s improved dribbling.

“A lot better,” Lillard said of the difference he has seen of Aminu’s ball handling from this year to years past. “Sometimes when he catches it and they close the gap where he can’t get a shot off, he’s putting it on the floor and making plays to the rim. You know, sometimes in transition, he’s bringing the ball up and we’re getting a quality possession out of it, so it’s not like guys gotta chase the ball down and try to go get the ball or when he doesn’t have a shot, we’ve got to rush to get the ball,” Lillard added.   

Lillard also believes the mental part of Aminu’s game has helped too.

“When your mind is in the right place and you’re doing all these things, doing whatever you can for the team-- good things happen and he was on the good side of things, just because he was in it. He was in it mentally and it worked out. He was huge for us. He pretty much made all the big plays for us,” Lillard added.

Having your coach and teammates confident in you is always a helpful, but Aminu also trusts himself to it bring the ball up the court or drive hard to the rack.   

“It’s a thing that when you’re in the game and you notice that you’re not losing the ball… Obviously, you’re going to go to it more. The confidence comes from doing it… Just glad that it’s working,” Aminu said.

Being able to score a season-high after exerting so much energy on the defensive end with the difficult task of defending Blake Griffin also was noted postgame.

Maurice Harkless, who scored in double digits for the fourth straight game with 10 points, gave props to Aminu and how valuable he was on both ends of the floor. 

“He made a lot of big shots, especially down the stretch. He played really good defense on Blake and when we got switches he played good defense on the guards too, so he was huge for us. That last rebound and putback was big time too. It kind of sealed the game,” Harkless said.

Aminu had his good luck charm in the front row too. Maybe having your wife sit baseline can help boost the confidence as well.

Lillard's trust in his teammates is the difference-maker for Blazers

Lillard's trust in his teammates is the difference-maker for Blazers

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Trail Blazers, heading into tonight’s Game 3 vs. Oklahoma City, have been playing as well together as they have over the past several seasons. Different players are stepping up to help Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum like never before. This team is connected – at both ends of the floor.

And it all started at one of the low points of the season. The foundation for the team’s current play was built during adversity. Dark days.

McCollum went down with a knee injury during a game at San Antonio March 16. And nobody was quite sure how quickly he would return. Jusuf Nurkic would be lost for the season with a broken leg March 27. What appeared to be a season when the Trail Blazers could make a run at the conference finals, people suddenly questioned their ability even to make the playoffs.

Just how many points per game would Damian Lillard need to score per game to get this team on the winning track and into a decent playoff seed? Forty points? Fifty?

Turns out that approach wasn’t the right direction. Lillard had a better idea.

“I go back to those first three games when CJ was out,” Coach Terry Stotts said. “Before Nurk got hurt, but CJ was out. Those three games where he averaged 30 points and double-digit assists – being very efficient scoring the ball and setting up his teammates.

“I think that really set the tone for the rest of the season.

“Damian is very astute. Now he’s been in the league -- this is his seventh year -- I think he’s learned a lot. So I think he understood the dynamics.

“It’s not to say he wasn’t trying to score – we need him to score. But his understanding of the game and its dynamics had a lot to do with it.”

Lillard knows he’s progressed over time and those who have watched his career develop are aware of it. But the world may not understand how deep his intellectual approach to the game has become.

Maybe a few years ago, well...

“I would have taken it upon myself to try to have more big games,” Lillard said. “But I think it’s part of experience, learning and watching film and having a coaching staff that challenges you.

“Like now, when Nate Tibbetts mentions something to me like ‘Hey, I want to show you these clips. I want to talk about this.’ And we talk about it and so OK, I understand that.

“Dave Vanterpool says, ‘Dame, I need you to look at this.’ And Jim Moran says, ‘Dame, look at this.’ Dale Osbourne …they’ve all come to me and that has helped me advance my game as a point guard – mentally, and to know how to manage things better.

“Playing for a good staff, I went into that situation thinking, ‘I need to try to help my guys, where I can put them in a position to do what they do best, instead of me taking it upon myself.’

“And that will make us a better team in the bigger picture. And it will work out better for us. With Nurk and CJ out, it will work out better for us. And it was a perfect situation.

“That’s just what it had to be. If it came to where we weren’t going to win the game, my mentality was, if we get to the fourth quarter and we’re not scoring, then take it upon yourself.”

It’s all about trust – such an underrated ingredient in a team’s success. And Lillard gets it.

“Guys are capable,” he said. “Allow them to do what they do. Because they know the opportunity is going to be there.”

And they know their leader, Damian Lillard, trusts them.

“Exactly,” he said. ”That’s all the difference in the world.”

Tonight's X-factor in Oklahoma City won't be ON the court

Tonight's X-factor in Oklahoma City won't be ON the court

OKLAHOMA CITY – With the Oklahoma City Thunder down 2-0 to the Portland Trail Blazers in the best of seven series, the Thunder know adjustments need to be made and shots need to go down.

Coming off Game 2, Russell Westbrook went 5-of-20 from the floor and also committed 6 turnovers, while Damian Lillard finished with 29 points on 10-of-21 shooting including 4-of-8 from three. Portland’s backcourt outscored OKC’s 62-21.

After the Thunder wrapped up Friday morning’s shootaround, their shooting struggles were addressed, as well as what the Thunder feel may just make a big difference in Game 3.

OKC’s shooting woes

In Game 2, OKC shooting woes were front and center. The Thunder shot just 40.7 percent from the field as a team and 17.9 percent (5-of-28) from 3-point range and shooting 15.2 from three in Game 1.

During the regular season, Thunder starting power forward Jerami Grant averaged 11 points vs. the Blazers. In the first two playoffs games, he has scored 13 points combined on 3-of-15 shooting. 

Grant discussed how he and his teammates have been talking to each other about how they can’t shy away from taking shots because the tide will eventually turn.

“Just missing shots,” Grant said. “We’re fine though. We workout enough we know how to shoot the basketball. We know what we gotta do. We’ll be fine tonight.”

The X-Factor: Home Court 

After getting blown out in Game 2, the Thunder are now favored by 7.5 in Game 3. What's changed? Simply put: home court.

OKC finished the season with a 27-14 home record. Two of those home wins were big time performances against the Blazers.

“Um, we’ll see” was Westbrook’s simple response to “how important will homecourt advantage tonight?”

Westbrook did have a thoughtful answer though when it came to describing the Thunder fan base.

“Especially during this time of year they’re very, very excited, loud, intense throughout the whole game so it’s kinda good to always get in front of them. Westbrook said.

It sounds like having the home crowd behind them it what just might make the difference in Game 3.

“It’s huge, it’s huge. Playing at home, especially with the fans that we have it’s an extra man on the court with us. We’re definitely excited for this,” Grant said.

The Trail Blazers also understand what it means to play in front of your homecourt. After Portland’s shootaround, Lillard talked about the key to getting a win on the road.

“A lot of times you get on the road and it’s a little bit harder to do some of things you do at home when you get on the road because you’ve got… the crowd... it’s a standing ovation, they’re trying to get you going. Every shot that you make the crowd is going wild, making you feel good about everything little thing that you do… Those are the feel good things that you get from being a home team,” Lillard said.

“Then when you go on the road. It’s the exact opposite. Every time they make a shot it’s like the end of the world… So, it’s us being able to keep our focus and sustain what our mentality has been regardless of home or on the road,” Lillard added.

Game 3 between the Blazers and Thunder will tip-off at 6:30 pacific time on NBC Sports Northwest and the MyTeams App.

Three things the Blazers have done right and three things to watch out for vs. OKC

Three things the Blazers have done right and three things to watch out for vs. OKC

The Portland Trail Blazers are leading the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-0 in their first-round series and everything looks rosy in the Rose City. But the series now switches to Oklahoma and Chesapeake Energy Arena is no easy place to play. 

The Blazers find themselves in an interesting position, particularly given the late-season injury to Jusuf Nurkic. That anybody predicted they would be up on the Thunder at this juncture would be a stretch, even given Paul George's shoulder injury.

Over the first two games the Blazers have looked like the better team, and by a significant margin. With that, it’s time to look at three things that have gone right for Portland, and three things that they’ll need to watch out for moving forward.

Damian Lillard’s defense

Damian Lillard has been incredible on the defensive side of the ball in this series, agitating Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder. The Blazers PG posted a regular season defensive rating of 112, but he’s ratched that down to just 95.

Lillard has been particularly adept at using his left hand to swat at the ball, which is part timing and part film study. It’s led to several outright steals, not to mention poke aways and swipes down on the basketball during drives.

If Portland’s going to continue to be this impressive on defense, Lillard is going to have to be a part of it. Luckily he’s been whacking away possessions, blocking shots, and mucking up passing lanes during the first two games.

Blazers defense

Lillard’s defense is a part of a bigger picture that folks haven’t really talked about yet. Terry Stotts and his staff appear to have put together a clear defensive plan around one tenant: unless it’s Paul George, don’t jump on any Thunder wing’s 3-point attempt.

Portland has taken to actively rushing to the 3-point line against OKC — Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, and all the Blazers backcourt have been seen sprinting hard on close outs — but when defenders arrive they’ve taken to getting low and protecting against the dribble drive.

It’s part of the reason the Thunder have shot just 16.4 percent from the arc, far and away the worst mark of any team in the playoffs. George’s shoulder has played its part as well, but make no bones about it — the Blazers have a gameplan, and it’s working.

Portland’s shooting

The Blazers have been the second-best team in these playoffs in terms of 3-point shooting percentage, and are fifth in made 3-point attempts. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have led the way in that respect, and Seth Curry has provided quite the spark off the bench.

The Thunder just haven't been able to contain Portland's long-range gunners, and both Lillard and McCollum have put up shots from deeper than perhaps OKC would have predicted.

Oklahoma City has declined in large part to double-team either player, much the way teams have in the postseasons past. That's allowed some more freedom for Lillard and McCollum, and the Blazers have made the Thunder pay dearly. 

Oklahoma City doesn't have the confidence in its roster to double-team the Blazer guards and still contain the rest of the Portland offense effectively. That's played right into the Blazers’ hands, and should continue unless Billy Donovan somehow comes up with a more athletic forward who can switch on to either guard. 

Westbrook’s determination

After Game 1 Russell Westbrook appeared to be mopey. After Game 2, Westbrook was energized.

The former NBA MVP said that he took full responsibility for the loss in Game 2, and it seems like he isn't going to let things stand as they head back onto his home court.

Oklahoma City hasn't used its home court advantage quite the way that seems like Portland or Denver have this season, but Westbrook is certainly more dangerous. He’s a better scorer at home, and shoots 1.3 additional attempts at the free-throw line per game at Chesapeake than away. That disparity could play a difference in a tight playoff game.

And remember, Westbrook and Lillard have a history. The Thunder guard once trash-talked Lillard by telling him that he’d “been busting that ass for years”. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and Westbrook is poised to go off like a bomb. 

Paul George’s shoulder

George didn't exactly have a poor game to start the series, but he did look susceptible to blocks by Moe Harkless. Put simply, he wasn't quite himself.

George has shot no better than 28.6 percent from the 3-point line in any game this series, and that's been a huge issue for Oklahoma City. George is by far and away the most important 3-point shooter the Thunder have on their roster, both in terms of made threes and 3-point percentage, and he has more than twice the made threes than the next closest Thunder in Dennis Schroder. 

That brings us to George's shoulder. The Thunder star looked much better in Game 2, and if he's ready to play at a higher level and feeling less pain, that could spell trouble for the Blazers. If George comes back as a relevant 3-point shooter, that will change the geometry of the floor for Portland's defense in a major way.

Evan Turner as a non-factor

Turner did not have a good March but he came on strong in the five games Portland played in the month of April. As the season came to a close, it seemed that Turner would play a large role in the playoffs as one of the Blazers’ most important players and as the leader of the second unit.

But Turner has played sparingly, logging just 16 minutes in Game 1 and 11 minutes in Game 2. He hasn't made an impact in the box score, and his plus-minus has been nominal.

Portland is firing on all cylinders right now — on both sides of the ball — but the strength of this team outside of Damian Lillard has been its bench. Turner is one of the big reasons for that and when the Blazers eventually face adversity against this Oklahoma City team, they're going to need him to show up and journey forward.

The Xs and Os of Damian Lillard's defense of Russell Westbrook

The Xs and Os of Damian Lillard's defense of Russell Westbrook

Damian Lillard has been excellent on defense this postseason. Having seemingly flipped a switch, Lillard has posted a 95 defensive rating in the playoffs, in stark contrast to his regular season mark of 112. 

The Portland Trail Blazers haven't hid Lillard, either, with Rip City's favorite son often guarding former MVP Russell Westbrook much of the time.

Portland's overall strategy and energy on defense has fundamentally changed as a team. Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, and Evan Turner are all more active, and it appears Terry Stotts and his staff have given them a mandate: close out hard, stay grounded, and don't bite. In essence, it's OK if anyone outside of Paul George takes a less-than-contested 3-pointer, just as long as no one gets into the paint.

That's been the base for Lillard’s strong start. He's played strong, low, and has moved his feet backward even when that seems counterintuitive. The Blazers PG has looked more confident, and he’s been able to get under the shirt of several Thunder players outside of Westbrook.

The biggest thing Lillard has done, shockingly, is come up with steals, swipes, and blocks in volume we've never seen from him before. That's thanks to a nifty move with his left hand that's made it seem like a trick he's waited to break it out until the postseason.

Watch the video above to see how Lillard's used his new move, plus played "spy" on George as a means to supercharge Portland's defense.

CJ McCollum is rising to the occasion and so is the Trail Blazers defense

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CJ McCollum is rising to the occasion and so is the Trail Blazers defense

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Trail Blazers and Thunder series now shifts to OKC with Portland leading 2-0.

Before Thursday’s practice, the Blazers spoke with the media on a number of topics and it’s apparent this team is dialed in.

Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts said all of his guys are available for Friday’s game, including Enes Kanter, despite Kanter suffering a contusion to his right hand in Game 2.

Just as CJ McCollum put it, the postseason is a different animal.

“Playoffs is a different brand of basketball. The intensity is different, the magnitude is different,” McCollum said before the Blazers hit the court for Thursday’s practice ahead of Game 3.

Playing in OKC is not gonna be easy

As the saying goes, “it’s not a series until someone wins on the road,” and for the Blazers, this squad is looking forward to continued success against the Thunder, but they’re expecting a different kind of energy playing in Oklahoma City.

“It’s different playing against a team on your home floor vs. their home floor. They have a great crowd here. It’s probably gonna be the toughest game of the series up to this point. I’m just excited about the opportunity to come out here and get another win,” Lillard said.

“They’re playing at home, so they may be more comfortable. As an opponent we don’t worry about the other team… We don’t worry about what the Thunder are going to do, we don’t worry about what their mindset is going to be, their approach, we worry about our team,” McCollum added.  

If history is on the Thunder’s side, they’ll take Game 3. Oklahoma City is 3-0 in Game 3 when they’re down 2-0.

By no means are the Blazers thinking OKC is just going to roll over.

“I expect them to come out and play super hard,” Moe Harkless said Thursday before practice. “We expect them to come out and be very aggressive on both ends of the floor and give us their best shot from the jump. We just have to be able to withstand that and punch them right back.”

McCollum is “rising to the occasion”

CJ McCollum has been taking it to Terrance Ferguson through the first two games. McCollum is averaging 28.5 points in the series.

When Lillard was asked about the difference in play from McCollum’s regular season performance against OKC to his current playoff performance, Lillard answered by first stating,  “I think a lot of things play a factor.”

“Obviously, CJ is a tough cover to begin with. I think in the regular season sometimes you’ve got a team on a back-to-back and sometimes you’ve got this team and then after that you’re fatigued. Right now I think we are all they have to worry about and they’re all we have to worry about, because this could be it for both teams, Lillard said.

“So, you just lock in more, you’re sharper. I think CJ has come into the series sharper. I think that could present a bigger problem than maybe some of those other times [in the regular season.]” Lillard added.

As for McCollum, he mentioned how his “shark-like” mentality has helped him with the game of basketball from a very young age.

“I’ve always been a killer ever since I was a kid. I’ve taken this game very seriously and that’s why I’ve been successful. With failure and success you’ve got to have the same mentality and same mindset. I’ve always said it -- I’m a shark; sharks eat. Sharks are killers, they figure out ways to provide for themselves and that’s what I’ve done,” McCollum said.

 

Being able to throw different guys at George has been key

Maurice Harkless has been tasked with the tough assignment of starting out the game guarding Paul George.

Harkless knows the importance of not allowing PG13 to see the ball go through the hoop early.

“It’s big time,” Harkless said of jumping on George early.

“He’s the kind of guy that once he gets into a rhythm, it’ll be hard to stop him. You’ve got to set the tone early and I think we’ve done a good job,” Harkless said.

Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts mentioned how nice it has been to have Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner and Rodney Hood all defend George at different times.

Harkless agreed with his coach. 

“Everybody plays him a little differently. So, it’s kind of hard for him to get consistency throughout the game and that’s huge for a guy like that because once he gets going it’s hard to stop him,” Harkless said.

The team knows it’s about making it as tough as possible on the Thunder All-Star forward.

“I don’t think Paul George is somebody you can just lock down, you know what I’m saying, he’s hitting threes and crafty, pulling up midrange, drawing fouls, getting to the rim. It’s hard to lock him down. But I think being able to make his life hard. We’ve been able to throw bodies at him. All of our wings have done a good job of not allowing him to just come out here and have his way,” Lillard said.

As for Coach Stotts, he has been pleased with his team’s overall defense.

“I thought Game 2 was a big improvement over Game 1. The areas that we were concerned about we got better in each one of them – transition, offensive rebounds, pick and roll defense. Up and down the line we were much better in Game 2,” Stotts said.

Game 3 between the Blazers and Thunder tips off at 6:30 pacific time on NBC Sports Northwest and the MyTeams App.

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Thunder favored by 71/2 Friday -- and here's a possible reason why

Thunder favored by 71/2 Friday -- and here's a possible reason why

As we get ready for Game 3, a few observations about Portland’s 2-0 series lead over Oklahoma City:

  • The Trail Blazers have looked great so far. The Thunder have not. But please remember this – you look powerful, confident, well-coached and pretty great when the ball goes in frequently and when it doesn’t, you can look weak, ineffective, disorganized and just overall awful. That’s why they call it a “make-or-miss league.”
  • During the regular season the Thunder were not a very good three-point shooting team – but they were nowhere nearly as bad as they’ve been in this series so far. OKC shot 34.8 percent from three over the 82-game regular season. In the first two games of this series, the Thunder have shot a pathetic 16.4 percent – by far the worst of any playoff team.
  • Is that due to great Portland defense? Or is it just poor OKC shooting? As Terry Stotts might say, "It's probably a little bit of both."
  • The Trail Blazers, at 42.1 percent, are the No. 2 three-point shooting team in the playoffs so far, right behind Golden State. What did the Trail Blazers shoot in the regular season? Well, that would be 35.9 percent – just a point higher than Oklahoma City.
  • Two playoff games -- welcome to small-sample-size theater!
  • How long can the Trail Blazers continue to shoot more than 42 percent from three? How long will the Thunder shoot under 20 percent?
  • My guess on both sides would be, “Not much longer.” And do you now understand why OKC has continued to shoot threes in spite of its lack of success in the first two games? The Thunder know who they are.
  • The wise guys who make up the betting lines and point spreads for NBA games seem to think there will be a big turnaround Friday night in Oklahoma City. After losing to Portland by 20 Tuesday night, the Thunder have been installed as seven-and-a-half-point favorites Friday.
  • That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Game 3 of Portland Trail Blazers vs. OKC Thunder: How and Where to Watch & Stream the game

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Game 3 of Portland Trail Blazers vs. OKC Thunder: How and Where to Watch & Stream the game

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your Blazers and stream the games easily on your device.

As the series shifts to Oklahoma City for Game 3 and 4, the Trail Blazers take a 2-0 series lead with them.  Portland has not led a playoff series 2-0 since the First Round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs. In the Blazers’ 114-94 victory over the Thunder on Tuesday night, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 62 points, while Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless continued to make it tough for Paul George to get clean looks. George scored 27 points on 11-of-20 shooting.  

Lillard knows there is still a lot of work to be done.

"I know how quickly things can change," said Lillard. "I know that a series doesn’t start until you win a game on the road. I also know how capable their team is. So we’ve just got to maintain our focus, stay sharp in the things we’ve been sharp in, and understand how well we played in the first game and the second game is not going to be good enough in the third game, especially on their home floor.”

History is on the Blazers side though. When the Blazers have a 2-0 series lead, the team is a perfect 14-0 in the playoffs.


GAME DETAILS

Where to Watch: NBC Sports Northwest

Where to Watch on the go: Stream the game live on the new MyTeams App

Tip-Off Time: 6:30 p.m. 

Point spread: Oklahoma City -7.5

NBCS NW Coverage: Blazers Outsiders Pregame Show (4:00 p.m.), Blazers Outsiders Postgame Show (immediately after the postgame show). 

Radio: 620AM Rip City Radio

 

INJURY UPDATES

For the Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic (left leg) is out for Tuesday's Game 3 vs. OKC.

For the Thunder, Andre Roberson (left patellar) and Hamidou Diallo (right elbow) are out.
 


QUICK LINKS

Dwight Jaynes: OKC has the Thunder but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are raining threes

Jamie Hudson: Trail Blazers head to OKC, where Damian Lillard's tap of the wrist all began

Mike Richman: Damian Lillard's defense at the center of the Blazers 2-0 series lead

VIDEO: Lillard Time: Dame, Blazers return to where it all began

VIDEO: Blazers know they face a long road despite 2-0 advantage



Download the brand new MyTeams app today - This is the app for everything Blazers: games, highlights, articles, podcasts and more from your NBC Sports Northwest Blazers team.

Trail Blazers head to OKC, where Damian Lillard's tap of the wrist all began

Trail Blazers head to OKC, where Damian Lillard's tap of the wrist all began

December 23rd, 2014 -- The Trail Blazers were wrapping up a four-game road trip with the final stop in Oklahoma City.

It was a showdown between Western Conference point guards in Portland's Damian Lillard and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, just like it is today.

Lillard came out on top.

He finished with 40 points and hit a game tying 3-pointer with three seconds left in regulation as the Trail Blazers rallied back to beat the Thunder 115-111 in overtime.

It was in that moment, after that three-pointer at the end of regulation to force overtime, when “Lillard Time” was officially born.

The Trail Blazers had just taken a full timeout with five seconds remaining in the game. Steve Blake was set to inbound the ball. Blake found Lillard without a Thunder player tailing him, curling off a screen at the top of the key. Lillard rose up, fell away, and drained the three.

And then, the now iconic celebration made its debut with a tapping of the wrist.

“That was just me pointing to the watch. That was "Lillard Time." That was the first time anybody seen that. I was just feeling myself a little bit at the moment,” Lillard said, grinning ear to ear, immediately after that victory in OKC.

The Trail Blazers starting point guard went 8-of-12 from 3-point range in the win. He added seven points in the extra period.

With that victory, Portland had won 11 of their past 14 road games.

Fast-forward five-plus years, and now the Blazers battle against the Thunder in their best of seven series in the First Round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

This week, Lillard recalled the inception of “Lillard Time.” He remembers it all very well. 

“On that road trip, coach was like if we win three out of those four, or something like that, then we could go home for Christmas break and I wanted to go home,” Lillard chuckled.

“Before that [game] I remember like [Trail Blazers TV broadcaster] Mike Rice and those guys, kept saying “Lillard Time,” and then the fans picked up on it, and then I don’t know, after I made that shot I just like pointed to my wrist,” Lillard said.

Lillard also said in that moment it all happened so quickly and the decision to tap the wrist, “was just on the spot.”

The use of hashtags -- #LillardTime and #DameTime, along with the use of emoji watches can been all over social media on any given game night.

The Blazers fan base always knows what time it is…

But what does “Lillard Time” mean to the one who has earned that phrase?

“I think it just says something about my ability to come up big,” Lillard said. “I’ve had many failures late in games where I’ve missed a game winning shot, I missed a shot that could tie the game and then they make free throws to separate them by four, I’ve missed a free throw late and the other team hit a three to force overtime. I’ve had those experiences, too.”

Lillard emphasized having a clutch shot go down is, of course, not always a guarantee.

“I think “Lillard Time” just says how I’ve been able to come up big a lot of times even though I’ve not been able to do it every time, but more times than not I’m able to come up big regardless of what type of game I’m having. Whether I’m hot for the whole game, or whether I’ve been cold. I’ve had it in both situations,” Lillard said.

“Lillard Time” has also evolved over the years.

Nobody would know more about the evolution of “Lillard Time” than Lillard’s teammate Meyers Leonard, who entered the league at the same time.

“He can hit deep threes, he can come downhill and find the weak side pass of the guy rolling to the rim. His game has really evolved… He’s obviously going to take over the game and score, but he’s also, I feel, continuing to develop and keep his teammates involved,” Leonard said.

Leonard says he remembers that game tying three-pointer in OKC very well.

He also knows Lillard has earned the right to that very memorable phrase.

“Dame has the ability to take over a game because of his level of confidence, aggressiveness, understanding of the flow of the game, and also the work he puts in,” Leonard said. 

To Lillard’s teammates, “Lillard Time” means much more than a clutch shot or big time assist.

“Lillard Time is the explosive scoring and the ‘Logo Three’ and all of these things, but the fact that he has the recognition to know what Moe [Harkless] and [Al-Farouq Aminu] and other guys do on a nightly basis that don’t always show up on the stat sheet, that’s huge, that’s leadership,” Leonard said.

“Lillard Time, to me… It’s his leadership, it’s his qualities that really stand out,” Leonard added.

So, whether you call it “Lillard Time” or “Dame Time,” or you just simply enjoy watching Damian Lillard come up with clutch shots time and time again, the memory of the very first wrist tap is on the brain, as Lillard and company head to OKC for Games 3 and 4, back to where it all began.

The story of “Lillard Time” continues…

Damian Lillard's defense at the center of the Blazers 2-0 series lead

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USA Today Images

Damian Lillard's defense at the center of the Blazers 2-0 series lead

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.