When Portland guard Damian Lillard won consecutive games at Detroit and Cleveland earlier this season with a game-winning shot each night, he did so in different ways.
Well, sort of.
He beat the Pistons with just one-tenth of a second left in overtime after he stutter-stepped, drove, spun and lost control of the ball for a moment before he found just enough space to create a 14-foot shot that found net as the clock’s final seconds ticked away.
Two nights later, he left an extra tenth of a second — a whopping two-tenths left in the fourth quarter this time — on the clock when he launched a three-point shot with one foot on the Cavaliers’ half-court logo that decided a tied game.
But both times his reaction was the same sort of understatement: He walked defiantly away — no jumping, no fist-pumping, no reaction at all really other than removing his mouth guard the first time — while his teammates handled all the celebrating around him.
Just like he has done this all life ...
“When you work so much at things, you start to expect results,” he said. “When I take those shots, I expect to make them. I’m confident. It’s not always necessary to yell and scream about everything. Sometimes it’s necessary, but if I didn’t do it I didn’t feel like it was necessary.”
He is just 23 and still fresh enough in the NBA to become the first player ever who qualified and participated in all five All-Star events last weekend in New Orleans.
“It’s amazing. I see his growth every year,” Blazers teammate LaMarcus Aldridge said. “He has gotten better every year.”
Every year, in this case, isn’t even two full seasons.
The sixth player taken in the 2012 NBA draft out of little Weber State, Lillard is young enough to have played in the All-Star Weekend’s Rising Stars Challenge that is limited to rookies and sophomores and yet he has played with a maturity well beyond his years. He is averaging 20.9 points and 5.7 assists per game this season.
He earned Rookie of the Year honors last season, played alongside Aldridge in his first All-Star Game last Sunday and has helped lead the Blazers into contention for home-court advantage in the playoffs with a 36-18 record entering this weekend.
It looks like it has all come so easy …
“I can’t say I expected it,” Lillard said. “It’s tough. You work so hard and you expect to be successful, but things don’t happen this fast. I mean, Rookie of the Year, All-Star team, my team is playing great. You’ve got to be thankful for it. I’m blessed to be in this position.”
He will lead the Blazers into Sunday’s game against the Timberwolves in Portland without Aldridge at his side. He is expected to miss the first week coming out of the All-Star break so he can let strained groin muscles heal.
Without him, Lillard will carry on, fearless when it comes to taking the big shot at game’s end or any shot, it seems. Wolves coach Rick Adelman wondered aloud after a game against the Blazers in December how you stop a guy who just keeps stepping back further each time with the same shooting accuracy.
“I think that’s how you’ve got to approach, like you’re going to make every one,” Lillard said. “You go into last shot … if you’re playing against these level of players and you don’t have that confidence about yourself that they do, that just makes the game harder for you and you get embarrassed that way.
“I try to keep my confidence high, make myself believe I’m supposed to do things like that.”