Damian Lillard sprinted around a pair of screens and caught the ball in that same spot, about five feet behind the three point line, just left of the top of the key. The last time the Blazers trailed by two in this spot, Lillard was at home in the playoffs against the Rockets. This time, the deficit was three and Portland was on the road in Oklahoma City.
Lillard caught the ball with about four seconds left on the clock. Serge Ibaka recognized what was happening, but it was too late. The 6'10 Thunder forward quickly switched off his assignment and sprinted towards Lillard, left arm in the air, but there was nothing he could do. With three seconds left, the shot fell through the basket, erasing a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit and tying the game at 98. Lillard would score seven more points in overtime to give the Blazers a 115-111 road win over the Thunder.
Lillard finished with 40 points and 11 assists. He was 11-of-21 from the field and connected on eight of his 12 three-point attempts as he put the Blazers, who played 24 hours earlier Houston, on his back. With the win Portland improved to 23-7, the second-best record in the stacked Western Conference.
The Warriors have gotten most of the attention this season and for good reason, but the Blazers now find themselves just two games behind Steve Kerr's crew. They have the third-best defensive rating (99.6) in the NBA and an offense that, despite being "just" 10th in points per 100 possessions (106), can still be considered one of the league's best. That's what happens when you two stars.
Lillard might not be as electric as Russell Westbrook or as great a shooter as Stephen Curry. But he can get to the basket as well as any point guard in the league and, as evidenced above, hit from any spot on the court. Lillard is taking over six three-pointers per game this season and is connecting on 39 percent of them. When guarding him, opponents have to go over the screens on pick-and-rolls, something which opens up the court for Lillard, and the rest of the team. He also seems to hit every clutch shot he takes. Sometimes they even look alike.
Of course, the Blazers are far from a one-man team, and Lillard's heroics wasn't the only reason they beat the Thunder Thursday night. Aldridge added in 25 points and Wesley Matthews had 22, while Portland also hit 17 of its 31 three-point attempts. The Blazers did allow Russell Westbrook to go off for 40 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, but they made the Thunder turn themselves into a one-man show.
That man, Westbrook, is and was great. But on this night, the show belong to Lillard. It's not the first time it's happened and it most likely won't be the last.
3 other things we learned
The Atlanta Hawks are really good. Quick quiz: guess (without cheating) which team has the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Yeah, the heading of this bullet point gives the answer away. But did you know that the Atlanta Hawks, who now stand at 21-7 after their 101-97 home win Tuesday night over the Clippers, are just a half-game behind the Toronto Raptors, the team currently at the top of the East's standings.
The Hawks have won five games in a row and, amazingly, 14 of their last 15. In the past eight days they've beaten the Bulls, Cavaliers, Mavericks and Rockets. The latter three wins all came on the road, and the one in Cleveland was a blowout. The Hawks have no stars, but head coach Mike Budenholzer has his team playing an unselfish and efficient style of basketball. Only four teams throw more passes per game, according to NBA.com, and no team averages more assists. The result: the sixth-best offensive rating (106.7) in the NBA. At 100.8, Atlanta also has the seventh-best defensive rating in league. Right now it's hard to tell what the ceiling for this team is. One thing we do know: it's pretty damn high.
The Lakers are actually better without Kobe Bryant. This is no longer a joke that fans can throw out sometimes. Tuesday night, the Lakers gave Kobe Bryant the night off. Tuesday night, the Lakers beat the Warriors, the best team in the NBA, 115-105. It was just the Warriors' fourth loss of the season and just the Lakers' ninth win. That Kobe Bryant was not involved is not a coincidence.
Still lots of noise, but the sample size keeps getting bigger: pic.twitter.com/OLMNbcxcRo— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 22, 2014
Against the Warriors, the Lakers shared the ball and had a balanced attack. They recorded 28 assists, eight above their season average, and no player took more than 13 shots. Five attempted 10 or more shots. It's not that the Lakers are a good team without Kobe, but when he sits, they seem to morph into a respectable one.
Kobe's not going anywhere so none of this matters, but it will be interesting to watch how this plays out all year.
The Sixers are no longer the worst team in the NBA. With its 91-87 over the Heat in Miami, Philadelphia improved to 4-23. Those four wins have all come in the team's last 10 games. The Sixers still have the worst winning percentage in the league (0.148), but the Knicks have more losses (25). The two other teams in the conversation are the Pistons (5-23) and Timberwolves (5-22), the latter of which plays in the Western Conference, meaning you can expect Philadelphia to pass them in no time.
The Sixers' offense still stinks, but over this 10-game stretch, they've been holding teams to 96.6 points per 100 possessions, a number which would be the best in the league. Defense was how the Sixers were able to erase a 23-point second half deficit Tuesday night and defense is how they will, despite management's best efforts, figure out a way to climb out of NBA's cellar.
(Non-Dame Lillard) Play of the Night
John Wall is ridiculous. Not only is he faster than everyone on the court, and a one-man fast break, but look what he can do while running ahead of the pack.
8 fun things
Andrew Wiggins is sending a message to the team that drafted him No. 1 and then traded him. Given that he's only averaging 12 points per game, LeBron probably doesn't care, but that's neither here nor there.
The Atlanta Hawks Hanukkah celebration looks nothing like any Hanukkah celebration you've ever seen. In my house we certainly don't have mascots and togas.
When Courtside Seats Go Wrong. Glen Davis fell onto a child's lap, then kicked him in the head.
If you're a strength and conditioning coach, the only way you're going to make it onto TV is by wearing perhaps the ugliest sweater every designed.