It was not supposed to end like this for Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. Not this year.
Dealt what seemed like a fatal blow in March when Jusuf Nurkic, Portland’s most valuable indispensable inside presence, was lost for the season with a broken leg, the team somehow grew stronger. The Blazers entered the postseason ready to vanquish their playoff demons, and Lillard — so long in Golden State’s shadow and driven by a first-round exit last season — seemed up to the challenge.
That feeling only grew in the first round when he almost single-handedly dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder, a plucky (and star-studded) underdog that some had predicted would pull off an upset. The series was over in only five games, and the only question it left was which of its biggest moments would live longer in the memories of basketball fans: the impossible shot Lillard threw up to end Game 5, the wave he offered toward the Thunder bench, or the look of dispassionate determination on his face when TV cameras captured him in a pile of his celebrating teammates.
Any one of the moments could be called iconic in its own right, but the look on Lillard’s face — all business at the center of a joyous, chaotic dogpile — served notice to the rest of the league that he was coming for them, as well.
Now Lillard sits on the precipice of elimination, down three games to none against a Warriors dynasty that, even short two All-Stars, simply has too many options for Portland to breathe. And it is Lillard — nursing a rib injury sustained in Game 2 — whom they are suffocating the most.
Through the first three games of the Blazers series, Golden State has dared anyone but Lillard to beat them. The Warriors have done so by throwing size and numbers at the 6-foot-3 Lillard, a four-time All-Star. If he gets through the 6-foot-7 Klay Thompson, he has to deal with the 6-foot-6 Andre Iguodala; if he gets through Iguodala, there stands Draymond Green, the most dominant defensive player of these playoffs, who is likely nowhere near his listed height of 6 feet 7 inches but plays as if he were well over 7 feet tall.
“It’s like a next layer of defense that I’m paying attention to, so whereas I’m not, I guess, wanting to explode and get around that guy, because I see what’s waiting for me,” Lillard said of Green. He added: “It’s tough.”
The strategy is working to perfection. Lillard is shooting a dismal 32.6 percent from the field and is scoring only 20.3 points a game — a steep drop-off from his average of 33 per game in the first round. He has tried to make up for his scoring drop by passing more, but neither C.J. McCollum nor any other Blazers have stepped into the void in a meaningful way.
The result was Lillard, dogged by questions about the rib injury sustained in a collision with Kevon Looney, seemingly growing frustrated with fans who expect him to single-handedly lift a team that he has carried on his shoulders so many times in the past.
“I just think people want to see me doing it,” he said. “They want me to be making shots and doing all this stuff, but it’s different when you’re out there. Being a part of the game is different than somebody just watching.”
In a basketball landscape in which legacies seem to be constantly re-examined, Lillard’s struggles could result in his being labeled a regular-season star who can’t lift his team in the playoffs. A Russell Westbrook, rather than a Kawhi Leonard.
Whether Portland’s season ends on Monday night or not, seven years into his career, Lillard has proved to be nothing short of phenomenal. He just wrapped up his fourth consecutive season of averaging 25 or more points a game, he has perhaps the deepest effective shooting range of any player not named Stephen Curry and he has shown over and over again that he is the type of star who can thrive when pressure is at its highest. Yet he was inexplicably left off the All-Star rosters in both 2016 and 2017, and he has finished in the top five of the Most Valuable Player Award voting only once.
And while his teams have, indeed, failed in the playoffs, even a glance at the rosters Lillard has worked with versus the rosters of the team’s he’s competed against — Portland is 1-11 in the playoffs against Golden State over the last four years — seems to be enough to take any asterisks off his stardom.
Golden State’s players — even Green — said repeatedly on Sunday that they expect Lillard to come out firing in Game 4. They warned outsiders, and perhaps reminded themselves, that nothing should be seen as a foregone conclusion.
Lillard, faced with a series deficit no N.B.A. team has ever overcome, against a team that many feel is unbeatable, is showing no signs of quitting. His season could end Monday, but he said it would not be because he let a few failures get to him.
“You know, you look at the numbers and there’s a slim chance of you winning the series like that, but we’ve got a lot to play for,” Lillard said of coming back from a three-game deficit. “Obviously you never know when the first time it’s going to happen. We could be the first team to do it.”