Damian Lillard never met Flip Saunders.
But Monday night, as the Saunders tribute was playing on the big screen at Target Center before the Wolves’ home opener with Portland and he watched the Wolves respond and heard the crowd cheer, Lillard knew it was going to be a difficult night.
“It was even emotional for me, and I didn’t know him personally,” said Lillard, Portland’s star guard. “We were expecting a lot of fight, a lot of energy. They came out and they played hard. But we played a resilient game.”
Monday night began with a tribute, and the game started with a Wolves surge. But Lillard made sure that it ended with a quiet Target Center crowd filing out of the arena after Portland’s 106-101 victory.
Lillard scored a season-high 34 points to go with seven assists, two steals and a block. He essentially kept the Blazers in it when nobody else on the team seemed able to score early and the Wolves were racing to a quick start. Then he scored 20 points after halftime.
Lillard and backcourt mate C.J. McCollum combined for 52 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and hit six of 15 three-point shots. Together the one-two Blazers punch helped Portland dig out of a 17-point first-quarter hole, eventually build a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, then hang on for the victory.
“He’s a competitor,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of Lillard, the lone returning starter from a Portland team that finished fourth in the Western Conference last season. “He’ll do whatever it takes to win a game.”
Monday that meant keeping his team in the game early. With the Wolves flying out of the gate, scoring 34 points in the opening 12 minutes, it was Lillard who kept the Blazers within shouting distance. He scored 10 points in the quarter, hitting five of eight shots. His layup at the end of the quarter pulled the Blazers within 13.
With the two teams tied to start the second half, Lillard scored 15 of his team’s 30 third-quarter points as the Blazers took a three-point lead.
He added five more points in the fourth quarter.
McCollum struggled with his shot down the stretch, but the player who some thought the Wolves would take with the ninth pick in the 2013 draft — Saunders traded down to get Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng instead — did the job on defense, including a stop on Andrew Wiggins late with the Wolves within two.
“I’m glad we were able to be here [Monday] tonight, to watch [the tribute],” said McCollum, who met Saunders during a predraft workout in 2013.
Unfortunately, the Blazers backcourt was a big reason why the night ended on a sour note for the Wolves and their fans.
“Everybody in the arena was happy to pay their respects to Flip Saunders, and then we played the game,” Lillard said. “I’m sure a lot of them played with heavy hearts. But we played a really resilient game, we found an answer.”