The Trail Blazers have been walking a tightrope in almost every game of the NBA restart, going down to the very end before the game was decided.
But Sunday they had their safety net back.
Damian Lillard, who has saved his team from a free fall with late heroics so many times, stepped up again after a rough game Saturday, when he missed two foul shots that would have put Portland in position to beat the Los Angeles Clippers.
But against the Philadelphia 76ers Sunday, Lillard racked up 51 points, seven assists, three rebounds and two steals as the Trail Blazers pulled out a tense 124-121 win. Philadelphia, like the Clippers Saturday, was playing without key parts of its attack.
Ben Simmons was lost to injury last week and Joel Embiid left the game after six minutes due to an ankle injury.
Portland led by 17 in the second quarter and nine at the half, but surrendered the lead in the fourth quarter, trailing by six with 4:23 to go.
But Lillard’s spectacular four-point play with 2:53 left vaulted the Trail Blazers into a lead they managed to hold until the end.
“I just remember looking up there (at the scoreboard) thinking, just keep the lead,” Lillard said. “Instead of playing from behind -- that's uncomfortable to be down two and don’t score, they could go up five. I just looked up there like, ‘OK, how let’s walk away from them now. Let’s close the game out and stop messing around with our season.’”
Lillard is the focus in every close game. He willingly carries that heavy burden on his shoulders and has since he was a youngster. He remembers the first time he felt that rush of having the game in his hands.
‘I was 14,” Lillard said. “I remember I was playing on my AAU team, the Rebels, and we were getting beat by about 20 in the first half. And we came all the way back.
“I started guarding their best player. I was stopping him, and I was just scoring over and over again. Then it came to the end of the game, I just hit a game winner.
“I got that feeling. I love the feeling -- ‘We have to score every time. We have to get a stop. We have to come up big.’
“It seemed like for the rest of the AAU tournaments after that, every time it came to the end of the game i just found myself enjoying the thrill of like, ‘We could lose right here,’ or ‘We could win.’
“I just loved that ride. I’m willing to risk it all. I’m willing to … If we lose, I can deal with it -- like I did yesterday, When we win, let’s do it again -- I enjoy it.”
It’s rare people to find players who can carry that stress. Who can handle it. Winning is the easy part, but bouncing back after a bad outcome the way he did Sunday is special.
“I enjoy those games, mentally,” Lillard said. “People start to break down, people have lapses. You get to that point where only a few people are going to be able to push through and sustain that same level of focus.
“I like to take advantage of that, because I know I’m going to be there the whole time. That’s the fun part of the game to be in. You’ve got to be mentally strong.”
Portland needed stops down the stretch and got them, but it wasn’t easy. The Blazers survived a three-point field goal attempt by Jason Richardson with 5.7 seconds left that would have tied it, thanks to physical defense by Carmelo Anthony.
Richardson had made six of his nine threes prior to that shot and led the 76ers with 34 points.
Portland meets Dallas Tuesday, then Brooklyn Thursday to close out the eight-game seeding schedule. Two wins would still give the Trail Blazers the No, 8 seed, if Memphis loses to either Boston or Toronto.