By now, six seasons into Damian Lillard’s career, the Trail Blazers have come to expect not just greatness out of their do-it-all point guard, but also late-season magic.
And Saturday in Phoenix, in what he called one of his more “significant” late-season performances, Lillard gave some insight into how, and why, he flourishes when a game, and sometimes a season, are on the line.
“It comes down to how much it means to you,’’ Lillard said after his memorable game winner Saturday that capped a 40-point, 10-rebound performance.
And therein lies his power: what this means to him.
See, with Lillard, he carries an incredible weight on his shoulders. Fair or unfair, the success and failure of the Trail Blazers are, in his mind, a reflection of him.
It is a burden that only superstars feel, and one that only special, franchise players can relate.
It’s why last season he called it the greatest accomplishment of his career after he led the Blazers into the playoffs after they were 11-games under .500 heading into March.
And it’s why he long ago game to grips with All-Star snubs and postseason awards, because he had realized the game is bigger than awards. It’s about winning.
So with the Blazers on Saturday trailing by 15 points in the fourth quarter to the lowly Suns, and the entire team mired in a 3-for-26 shooting night from three-point range, Lillard knew it was time to show what all this means to him.
He scored 19 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter, and he scored 10 of the Blazers’ final 12 points, including the game-winning layin while going past, and through, three Suns players.
He called it “recognizing the situation” but later, he acknowledged it was that bigger-picture coming into focus. A demoralizing loss to the Suns one night after an empowering victory at Utah would somehow be a reflection upon him.
“If our team has success, people will realize what my impact is,’’ Lillard said. “They will realize what we are capable of. And if we don’t (have success), then they will say whatever they want about me. So I realize it’s a reflection of my leadership and how I can lead the team.’’
He feels ownership because he puts so much into this team. He has counseled Maurice Harkless through his ups and downs. He has coached and mentored Jusuf Nurkic. And he has established a teamwide culture of hard work and accountability by his attention and devotion to workouts.
Inside the locker room, his teammates hear his leadership, and they see his effort and production on the court. They too, can sense the burden Lillard carries in leading this franchise.
“It’s a gift and a curse being a superstar,’’ Harkless said. “When your team doesn’t do well, it’s your fault. When your team does well, it’s because of you. That’s just the burden of being a superstar and he does a good job of wearing that and owning that, and accepting it. And that’s the thing: he never backs down from the moment. Every time he steps up big. That’s why he is big time for us.’’
Teams don’t win when the hearts of their star players are not with the franchise. Think LaMarcus Aldridge, who in the 2015 playoff series against Memphis played like he had one foot in San Antonio. Think Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby and Raymond Felton, whose mutiny against Nate McMillan sabotaged the 2011-2012 season. And think Rasheed Wallace, whose obsession with officiating and his dislike for Mike Dunleavy submarined the 2000-2001 season.
Lillard, on the other hand, has embraced and endorsed Portland and the Blazers. He has first-hand experience of how hard it is to recruit a free agent, or convince a player to agree to be traded here. And he knows there is an element of isolation playing amid the beauty of the evergreens and the dampness of our winters.
Yet, he repeatedly says he wants to be here for life, and be considered the greatest Blazer of all-time.
And he said the holdovers from the 2016 Blazers team that beat the Clippers in the playoffs recently reflected how much fun that was, and how they felt a connection after that run. It has made him want to lead this group to those heights and more.
It’s why, he believes, there is a little more behind his late-game heroics than just stepping up in crunch time.
It’s because he says he is playing for something bigger than him. He’s playing for the Blazers.
“A lot of times for me, it’s a mentality,’’ Lillard said. “When I come out there and assert myself, I see one thing: and I see it going the way I want it to go. I feel like I have something about me mentally that I can control what happens. I might be wrong, but that’s how I feel. So I’m able to come out and drive whatever I want to drive to happen.’’