Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard has proven time and time again that he can take it to another level in crunch time.
The NBA world witnessed that yet again Tuesday night.
After Portland led by as many as 24 points in the third quarter, Oklahoma City charged back in the fourth quarter to take a five-point lead.
But with the Trail Blazers in control for most of the night, Lillard was not about to let it slip away.
With his superior play late in games, he rose to the occasion, hitting four straight threes as the Blazers pulled away from the Thunder for a 115-104 victory.
But, this is not a story about Damian Lillard's clutch performance. That's well known. Well understood.
What Damian Lillard wanted to make sure he communicated after Tuesday's game was the key role Gary Trent Jr., Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little have played in the Trail Blazers recent success.
Lillard has become “to expect certain things” from those three.
As has Rip City.
“They’re delivering,” Lillard said.
That was certainly the case Tuesday night in OKC.
Little and Simons shot 6-for-7 from the field in their first handful of minutes off the bench.
They were a spark that helped the Blazers take a 20-point lead in the first half.
Little looked like his athletic self after showing off his stroke and his hops after dealing with a left knee sprain earlier in the month.
Lillard also mentioned how the extended run for Portland’s young players has been key in their development instead of spot minutes, garbage time, or games where he or CJ McCollum sat out to rest.
And since the Blazers were even more shorthanded than they have been on their current winning streak, which extended to five games Tuesday night, Portland has needed every bit of the young role players to step up.
The Blazers were without:
- Harry Giles (left calf strain)
- Rodney Hood (left foot sprain)
- CJ McCollum (left midfoot fracture)
- Jusuf Nurkic (right wrist fracture)
- Zach Collins (left ankle stress fracture)
Trent Jr., who has had huge shoes to fill with McCollum out, finished with 19 points, four assists, and two steals in Tuesday nights’ win, while Simons added 15 points before fouling out early in the fourth quarter.
Little added 13 on a perfect 5-of-5 from the field which included 3-of-3 from deep.
In his limited opportunity since battling the injury bug and COVID-19, Little has shown that he is on his way to becoming a reliable knock-down shooter.
The No. 25 pick of the 2019 NBA Draft is playing with confidence and the team has reciprocated that confidence in Little.
As for Trent Jr. and Simons, the two have previously discussed how they share in each other’s success after coming into the league together in 2018. They're happy to see their hard work in the practice gym translate to the game, and the two have become offensive weapons that Lillard can rely on.
They are also becoming more comfortable as facilitators.
But it all goes back to the time put in the gym during the offseason and beyond.
“We worked out time after time in the summer,” Trent Jr. said. “So to see it translate into the game, see it actually work, see everybody start to click, it’s everything that we ever wanted, everything that, obviously, you work hard, you go to the game you want to play good…. We all know the work that we’ve put in. We all just cheer for one another, happy for one another. We got out there and hoop.”
Just as Lillard said postgame, there’s never been a doubt that Trent Jr., Simons, and Little have talent.
“They playing big. Ant, GT and Nas, Harry [Giles] as well – they playing big, they giving us great minutes and it’s not one or two games.”
It’s the young core’s confidence and skillset mixed in with Lillard’s clutch play and overall game, of course, that has the Blazers riding their longest winning streak of the season.
And as Trent Jr. and Simons now began to see their names on opposing teams' scouting reports, Lillard has this to say to the Blazers’ young guns still getting open looks:
“They better enjoy the space.”