Damian Lillard made sure his own birthday wish came true.
Before the seeding games started, the Trail Blazers gathered in a ballroom in their Yacht Club hotel to celebrate Lillard’s 30th birthday. He stood before the entire team and explained his one birthday wish.
“Let’s not waste our [freaking] time down here,” the Blazers point guard said.
Thanks in large part to his own heroics, Lillard’s wish has been granted.
Lillard had 61 points on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, carrying the Blazers while tying his own franchise record for points in a game. He went 17-for-32 from the floor, hit nine three-pointers and made all 18 of his free throws. This performance came on the heels of 51 points to key a late rally against Philadelphia on Sunday.
More than the 112 over his last eight quarters was the fact that Lillard saved the Blazers from the brink of a painful collapse. A loss in either of their previous two games and the Blazers would currently be sitting in 11th place, needing help to earn a spot in the play-in game. But following historic performances from Lillard, in which he became the first player in franchise history to have consecutive 50-point games, the Blazers are now alone in eighth place and control their destiny heading into their final seeding game on Thursday.
The math is simple. If the Blazers beat the Brooklyn Nets, they’ll finish in eight place and need to beat the ninth place finishers once in a double-elimination play-in scenario over the weekend to officially earn a playoff spot.
“Nobody wanted to come into this bubble and make the playoffs more than Dame,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “We’ve got one more game to go but his leadership -- obviously his game speaks for itself -- but he’s bringing the team along with him.”
Without Lillard’s eruptions Portland’s path forward would be very murky. Memphis, Phoenix and San Antonio are all tied a game behind the Blazers with one seeding game left on their schedules. The difference in a waste of time and a memorable playoff push is razor thin, but Lillard’s 22-point fourth quarter on Tuesday was an emphatic declaration that the Blazers stay at Disney World would be time well spent. The margin between out of control and complete control was a Mickey Mouse whisker, and with that little room to spare Lillard delivered in the Magic Kingdom.
With time to process the moment and collect his thoughts, Lillard spoke to the media about 20 minutes after the game ended and didn’t sound like someone resting on his laurels or basking in two performances that rival any back-to-back games in team history. Instead he sounded like a man still focused on his birthday wish, committed to not wasting the opportunity.
“I know it was a great game; last game and this game. But I’m going out there thinking, ‘I’m going to do whatever I got to do for us to win these games,’” Lillard said, noting that his friends sometimes get on him for not appreciating his accomplishments in the moment.
When a reporter noted that that was perhaps because the job wasn’t finished with one more game on the schedule that the Blazers need to win in order to guarantee they land the eighth seed, Lillard agreed.
“I just move on,” Lillard said. “Whatever’s necessary.”
The Blazers and Lillard gave themselves a chance to be in control of their playoff dreams. They guaranteed themselves a chance to move on to the next hing, making sure this whole experiment wasn’t a waste of time.