Damian Lillard wasn’t quite all the Trail Blazers needed Thursday night to beat the Denver Nuggets 125-115. But the Blazers most certainly needed all of what Damian Lillard gave them.
And that was a lot.
Lillard scored 45 points, had 12 assists, four rebounds and three steals -- and took on his team’s most difficult defensive assignment in the second half.
And the Trail Blazers, who came to the Orlando Bubble to try to claim the No. 9 spot in the Western Conference in order to earn a play-in series against the Memphis Grizzlies, moved within a half-game of the Grizzlies for the eighth position.
This was a big game for the Trail Blazers and Lillard knew that Denver -- even with four starters sitting out this game -- was going to be dangerous and he had to take the game seriously from the start.
Which he did, with 14 points in the first quarter. The Portland guard had made only 10 of his 30 three-point shots in the first three games in Orlando but knocked down 11 of 18 in this game, tying his own franchise record for most made threes in a game.
Lillard wasn’t going to let his teammates look past this game or take a win for granted because the Nuggets were short-handed.
“We’re here to just get it done,” Lillard said. “Teams have lost those games. Tonight, I just wanted to come out and set the tone.
“They had guys out and you can’t come out and think you’re going to win. You have to come out and be present. I don’t care who is out there, we have to come out and play like everybody’s out there because it means more to us than it means to them. And that was my mentality.”
And after Michael Porter Jr. burned the Trail Blazers early, Lillard volunteered to take on the task of guarding the 6-10 power forward. Sometimes on defense, a big heart is as valuable as a big body.
“We’ve got eight games to try to get into the playoffs,” Lillard said. “It’s not like we’re looking at a full 82 game season. I told (Coach Terry Stotts), 'Let me guard him.' He made a few shots, was comfortable for a little bit and i just wanted to make him a little bit uncomfortable.
“I was physical. I made him work for it and I thought I did a pretty solid job of that.”
Lillard was Deep Dame for most of this game, launching long-range shots quick and accurately
“In the first two games, the ball was coming off my hands really well,” Lillard said. "I just wasn’t making it. It was just timing. We hadn’t played too many games.
“It felt good, I knew eventually it would click -- the ball would just go in and it would feel great.”
And when it clicks for Lillard, there’s a good chance it will click for others. When the Blazer star catches fire, he draws more attention and it opens shots for his teammates.
Down the stretch of the game, everybody was contributing to the offense as the defense focused on Lillard. Gary Trent and Jusuf Nurkic were the beneficiaries and Portland scored 15 of the game’s final 22 points.
But this doesn't get any easier.
After a day of rest Friday, Portland plays the Los Angeles Clippers Saturday and Philadelphia 76ers Sunday in its only back-to-back on the Orlando schedule.
And the Blazers are likely to again need all they can get from Damian Lillard.