PORTLAND, Ore. — It’s a shot that will be replayed for years to come, one of the all-time postseason moments as Damian Lillard closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games from almost 40 feet to give himself an even 50 points and his team a spot in the second round.
The official play-by-play lists it as a 37-foot shot, but it hung in the air for nearly two seconds, hitting the bottom of the net as the buzzer expired to lift the Trail Blazers in Game 5, 118-115.
“It was a great feeling when it left my hands,” Lillard said. “It felt good.”
With the score tied, Russell Westbrook barreled at the rim and missed a tough layup with 18.3 seconds left. The Blazers grabbed the rebound and decided not to called timeout, getting the ball into Lillard’s hands. He crossed midcourt with about 10 seconds left, and held his dribble near the logo. The seconds ticked off the clock and at a certain point — somewhere around three or four seconds — it became obvious Lillard was going to shoot it.
Paul George realized it too, taking a step forward to close the gap on Lillard. Lillard hit a “pound dribble,” as he called it, and set to let it fly.
“I didn’t want to put it into the referee hands,” Lillard said. “Where if there was contact or maybe they get away with contact or I end up having to take a tougher shot because there was contact and they don’t want to decide the game. So I was standing there looking at the rim and I was like this is a comfortable range.”
Last week when Lillard was in Oklahoma City going through a workout, his trainer Phil Beckner suggested Lillard shoot a few deeps ones from near midcourt.
“He was like, ‘You’re gonna hit one of these,'” Lillard said. “He just kept saying, ‘You gonna hit one of these’ and when I was standing there I was like, ‘I’m gonna shoot it.’ [George] was a little bit off of me and I was [thinking] this was enough space for me just to raise up and shoot it for game.”
George lurched to contest it, and actually got reasonably close as Lillard let it go.
“That’s a bad, bad shot,” George said. “I don’t care what anybody says. That’s a bad shot. But hey, he made it. That story won’t be told that it was a bad shot. We live with that.”
For most anyone else, it probably is. For Lillard, it has become maybe his most lethal. Per Second Spectrum, Lillard is 8-of-12 from 30-plus feet this postseason, compared to 6-of-38 for everyone else.
After Lillard hit it, as he does, he kept it cool, giving a quick glance and a brief wave at the Thunder bench before his teammates mobbed him. It was a contentious series with the Thunder, highlighted by a tense Game 3 in which the trash talk between the teams percolated.
“The game, the series was over and that was it,” Lillard said. “And I was just waving goodbye to them. I think after Game 3, Dennis Schroder was out there pointing to his wrist, they was out there doing all these celebrations and doing all these stuff. We kept our composure and after one win that’s what they decided to do. And we was just like, ‘OK, what we want to do is win four games.’ And then when we win those four games there’s not going to be nothing to talk about. So that’s what that was.
“There’s been a lot of back and forth, a lot of talk and all this stuff, and that was the last word. That was having the last word.”
Lillard is famous for another series-ending shot — 2014 against the Houston Rockets — but he noted this one was different. That one, the Blazers were down two, and he broke the play to go get the ball. This one, he said the pressure was off because a miss just meant overtime. He had to think about it, but Lillard called it “probably the best” game of his career.
“That’s easily the best performance I’ve ever seen with my eyes,” Meyers Leonard said. “The way Dame leads, the way he approaches every day, the teammate that he is, the friend that he is, the amount of work he’s put in, the fact that he wants to stay in Portland and make it happen here … where else can I go with this? The guy is simply unbelievable.”
Lillard scored 34 of his 50 in the first half, playing the first 36 minutes of the game before finally taking a break to begin the fourth quarter. Without him on the floor, the Thunder outscored the Blazers 10-2, and eventually led by 15 with 7:55 to go. George played his best game of the series for the Thunder (36 points on 14-of-20 shooting) and Westbrook had a triple-double (29-11-14 on 11-of-31 shooting). But the Blazers had a response, and in part, it was sparked by a surprise cameo.
With 3:55 left, George finished a layup to put the Thunder up eight. Jusuf Nurkic appeared on the Blazers bench, the first time he has been at a game since breaking his leg on March 25. He was shown on the big screen in the arena and fans reacted with a roaring ovation.
“I was told we were down eight when he showed up,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “So he’s a plus-8. Actually more than that. We won by three, right? So plus-11. So his plus/minus was really good.
“You felt it in the building when they showed him on the big screen. No one knew he was going to show up, and honestly I think we fed off that. I think it was a little good karma when he did show up.”
For the Blazers, topping the Thunder is an achievement worth celebrating, especially after the disappointment of last postseason. It was the driving force for the franchise all season, getting swept in the first round — their second straight sweep — and dealing with the shock and embarrassment that came with it. Nurkic’s injury seemed as if it would derail a bounce-back season, but with Lillard rising to a new level, the Blazers overcame.
“You gotta go through some stuff,” Lillard told ESPN’s Mark Schwarz after the game. “We had some failures. Some challenges and I think I’ve had success in the postseason, and last year we had the ultimate failure. I think when you experience those things, you’re just built for it. I think that’s the first thing, and the second is just putting the time in. Everybody says they put the time in, but when everything is on the line the truth comes out. And that’s what happened tonight.”