Sports legends can get noticed in the regular season, but they are cemented in the playoffs.
The talk of the NBA playoffs so far has been the incredible 37-foot buzzer beater that Damian Lillard hit against the Oklahoma City Thunder that sent the Portland Trailblazers to the Western Conference semifinals. Since Lillard sank that shot there has been a lot of talk from members of the media about how great of a player he is and how he’s one of the best in the league.
Why does it take a 37-foot buzzer beater to start a conversation about how great a player is? Russell Westbrook has not had clutch shots in the playoffs like Lillard has, yet his talents have been talked about for years. He even won the MVP award in the 2016-17 season.
Lillard, on the other hand, has never been a serious MVP candidate, despite putting up MVP numbers, and has even been snubbed for All Star selections while Westbrook has typically been named a starter. Fortunately, Lillard has a chance to complete his quest to be known as one of the best in the league by advancing into the NBA playoffs as the leader of a team, something Westbrook has yet to accomplish since Kevin Durant’s controversial exit from the Thunder in 2016.
For Lillard, however, it is hardly ever about himself and his own individual accolades; it’s about his teammates and their quest to make a deep run in the challenging Western Conference Playoffs. Standing in their way is the second-seeded Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets made it to the Western Conference semifinals by defeating the San Antonio Spurs in a contested series that went the full seven games — the only full series in the first round.
Leading the Nuggets are Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Murray is a third year guard out of Kentucky who enjoyed a breakout season and has continued his streak in the postseason, averaging 20 points, 5 assists and 2 rebounds per game. Jokic has continued his dominant play from last season as well and has emerged this season as a true MVP candidate while putting up 20 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists per game. With a deep bench behind them, the Nuggets deservedly secured the 2nd overall seed in the conference, and despite struggling in their first round, remain heavy favorites in Vegas.
Fortunately, Lillard isn’t challenging the Nuggets on his own — he has two teammates who have been putting up solid numbers themselves. The first is Lillard’s long time backcourt mate CJ McCollum, who has been averaging 23 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists this postseason. The two have endured incredible hardships over the last 12 months, with the sting of last year’s early playoff exit fresh on their minds. So when star center Jusuf Nurkic fractured his leg March 26, it was easy to assume that the Blazers would not make a deep playoff run. However, the team signed big man Enes Kanter after he was waived by the Knicks, and the team has excelled. In the playoffs, Kanter has filled Nurkic’s role perfectly, with averages of 15 points and 10 rebounds. While Kanter and McCollum have been great for the Blazers, it’s going to be Lillard who needs to consistently perform like the MVP caliber player in order for the Blazers to move into the next round.
If you think Lillard is fazed by the pressure, then you haven’t been paying attention.
“Pressure, nah. Fam, this is just playing ball. Pressure is the homeless man who doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. Pressure is the single mom who is trying to scuffle and pay her rent. We get paid a lot of money to play a game. Don’t get me wrong — there are challenges. But to call it pressure is almost an insult to regular people,”, he said in an interview with NBC Sports.
Lillard’s ability to keep things in perspective has helped him stay focused on his game, and the Blazers have followed his lead and put the criticism aside.
If Lillard continues his magic from the first round, this could be the start of a legend in the making.