Before he even ate lunch on Monday Damian Lillard knew it was going to be a special day.
“It wasn’t about the points, it was just the mentality,” Lillard said after breaking his own franchise record and scoring 61 points, including 11 three-pointers in an overtime win over the Golden State Warriors. “We walked through shootaround and did everything we needed to do. Even when I went home after shootaround it just one of those days. When I came here, I wasn’t coming here to lose this game and it was as simple as that.”
With a performance for the ages, Lillard dragged the Blazers to an overtime win with the type of night that garners well deserved superlatives and sends media members to Basketball-Reference to try to put an all-time game in perspective.
Lillard was locked in early and even if he had a notion that he was headed for a dominant night, he let his demeanor do the talking.
“I don’t come in the huddle and say, ‘We’re not losing today!’ It’s more like when the game starts they feel my vibe,” Lillard said. “They feel the energy to how I typically interact to how interact when it’s one of those nights. I think that’s the only way to explain it.”
When the face of the franchise scores 61 points, it’s natural to talk about leadership and tone setting, adding intangible traits to help capture the on court heroics. Certainly Lillard was the leader and tone setter on Monday, but importantly he also was on Saturday night in Oklahoma City and he still will be when the Blazers take the practice court on Wednesday morning.
His leadership has been celebrated for seasons, singled out for helping his teams overachieve and getting the most out of his teammates. But perhaps no season has better encapsulated Lillard’s strengths as a leader than this one where the Blazers are injured and scuffling and but haven’t fractured or packed it in.
“He’s very consistent on the court and off the court,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Guys follow. That’s the case right now.”
Before he joined the Blazers, Anthony had heard the stories of Lillard as a leader and a winner. He was drawn to that early, but the way Lillard welcomed him in quickly and earnestly was eye opening.
“He just opened his house up to me,” Anthony said. “This is his home. He opened it up to me. He made me feel wanted. He made me feel appreciated in here. When you have that and somebody opens their home up to you like that, that’s a special person.”
Lillard said he made a concerted effort to make sure Anthony was comfortable on the court when he first arrived. They talked about where Anthony wanted the ball and how that would look in their offense while maintaining a balance alongside Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Beyond Xs and Os, Lillard has been inquisitive, probing Anthony for wisdom gleaned through 16-plus NBA seasons.
“We talk all the time,” Anthony said. “Basketball-wise just how to deal with certain things. How to deal with being the face of a franchise. Everything is on his shoulders. We talk about that. He asks a lot of questions. We discuss it, and he wants to know what that’s like and he wants to be better.”
That willingness and eagerness to listen and learn from a veteran with a shinier resume and more global cache impressed Anthony. It’s believable that Lillard commands a locker room full of his peers, and a roster dotted with first and second year players. But to welcome in a future Hall of Famer and make him feel comfortable while also leaning on him for feedback showed Lillard’s real strength. He has an innate gift for understanding how to reach people in different ways and an authenticity that makes those interactions feel natural.
A VETERAN EXAMPLE
Whether it’s 34-year-old Carmelo Anthony or 20-year-old Anfernee Simons, Lillard can forge a real connection.
“I can come to him about anything,” Simons said. “Whenever I have problems with stuff he comes let’s me know ‘Just be who you are.’ I kinda carry that throughout my game no matter what happens.”
Lillard didn’t wait until Simons was a rotational mainstay to start offering guidance. Just months into Simons’ rookie season Lillard introduced him to Phil Beckner, Lillard’s trainer and former coach at Weber State.
Lillard wanted to show Simons how to work like a professional, which included training beyond a typical NBA practice. This season, with Simons getting real minutes for the first time, it isn’t uncommon for he and Lillard to come back to the Blazers practice facility at night on an off day and go through an hour-long workout with Beckner.
One of the reasons the Blazers didn’t want to send Simons to the G League for extended stints last season is so he could be around Lillard, and see what All-Star level preparation looked liked.
“You see it first hand from him,” Simons said. “So you just kinda learn it as you’re watching. Even last year when he was playing a lot of minutes the night before he would come in the next day after practice and still get in his work. Just seeing that made me want to work harder because even though I wasn’t playing last year I thought to myself ‘He’s playing all these minutes (and still working) then I should be doing the same.”
CALM AND COOL
Perhaps no player on the Blazers roster has tested Lillard’s leadership abilities this season quite like Hassan Whiteside, Portland’s talented but flawed center.
The Blazers desperately need the best of Whiteside each night to have a chance, which is why Lillard has spent the season trying to coax consistent high-level play from Portland’s biggest offseason acquisition. There was a feeling out period particularly on offense as Lillard and Whiteside searched for better chemistry in pick and rolls. There have been obvious moments of frustration on both sides, but nothing that has escalated beyond a quick back and forth on the bench.
Lillard had gotten the most out of a castoff big man before. But unlike Jusuf Nurkic, who was much younger and more impressionable when he arrived in Portland, Whiteside was 30 years old, a seven-year veteran with ingrained habits and preferences. So while Lillard will get on Whiteside for miscues here and there he understands where the lines are in their relationship.
“He’s just a calm guy regardless of whatever happened you know he never tries to show you up on the court,” Whiteside says. “He never tries to make his teammates look bad. He can easily turn the ball over and it can be someone else's fault -- and I’m not going to say no names -- but there’s guys around the league that will be like, “Ahhh man!” He don’t do that. He don’t try to show up nobody. He’s a great guy.”
It’s that balance and consistency which Lillard brings every day that Whiteside has come to appreciate.
Anthony, Simons and Whiteside are perfect examples of Lillard’s shapeshifting leadership abilities. But he does it across the roster, regularly sending texts to his teammates to check in on how they’re feeling and keeping them engaged. That’s not a new development by any means, it’s been a part of Lillard’s leadership approach for years, but during a trying season it has been particularly valuable.
The Blazers trust Lillard implicitly and explicitly. He picks his spots to speak up in the locker room, and when to duck out quietly. He knows what buttons to press and when he can lean on guys and when to give them space.
Behind the scenes Lillard has been consistent with his messaging, preaching that the team has been in this position and rallied from a seemingly lost year to make the playoffs. He believes the Blazers will end up in the postseason, and hasn’t wavered from that even as the team has been struck by injuries and the losses have piled up.
So on Monday night when Lillard took over the game and carried the Blazers back from late deficits in the fourth quarter and again in overtime, the Blazers followed their leader. Not just because he was having an all-time great game but because he has laid the foundation all season long that they can place their trust in him.
“You show that belief in your actions, your body language, your attitude all the time,” Lillard said. “So it’s not like I was having a good game tonight so everybody believed because I believed. It’s like they know my disposition all the time. They know my attitude and personality all the time. So I think that’s the personality of our team. We always think we have a chance regardless or what our record is or anything like that, and that’s just who I am.”