Damian Lillard was having his best season ever before the All-Star break. There was a reason why so many people had him down as a Western Conference All-Star this year, and it was no surprise to hear backlash when he didn't make it, robbed one spot due to Kobe Bryant's unjust inclusion into the starting five. But as Lillard scored 24 points while shooting 43 percent overall and 36 percent from deep, dragging his team to a 27-27 at the break, he was praised for his development as a point guard.
But no one expected another growth spurt in what Lillard was capable of coming out of the break. On Friday, Lillard exploded for his second 50-point game since the All-Star Game snub, dropping in 16 of his 28 shots with six triples and five assists. It wasn't enough for a win, though, despite Portland outscoring the Raptors by nine points in the final frame. In the Raptors' 117-115 win, Lillard's need for reinforcements became clear.
Portland is the best NBA storyline we didn't know we were getting on Christmas Day. They've enacted a complete renaissance around their team, and while the initially games with four of last year's starting five absent was difficult, the Trail Blazers and the wizard Terry Stotts figured it out sometime in early January. Since Jan. 10, despite just losing consecutive games for the first time since the stretch started, Portland is 18-6, vaulting from a middling West lottery team to a clear lock for the playoffs.
Coming out of the All-Star break, where most players took vacations but Lillard contemplated his holy vengeance for the snub, Lillard is averaging more than 33 points per game on nearly 50-percent shooting. His shots can come from anywhere, at any time, with such a quick, lethal stroke that defenders are constantly on edge whenever he's even in their eyesight. Like this shot right here.
On Friday, Toronto had finally pulled ahead with a lead that seemed safe -- but eight points in the final minute from Lillard made things interesting until the final buzzer finally sounded. And Toronto is formidable! They've failed to sustain playoff success, but this year feels different, especially with a weaker Eastern Conference. DeMar DeRozan was incredible Friday, hitting his first 24 free throws before missing the final one. He still had 38 points on 7-of-19 shooting anyway, so life moves on.
But it's not just DeRozan who has Toronto looking up. In addition to Kyle Lowry, DeRozan's running mate, Toronto had contributions pour in from all over their bench. Jonas Valanciunas put in 17 points as the starting big man, too, and Norman Powell knocked down a couple big three-pointers. If you've never heard of Norman Powell, it's OK, most people haven't.
Lillard didn't get that same help. Outside of him, the Trail Blazers only shot 42 percent. Take away C.J. McCollum's 8-of-17 shooting night, and the rest of the team was barely over 40 percent. Portland is a very young team with a bright future ahead. This just wasn't the night for them.
We knew how good Lillard was becoming for most of the season, but this truly is something else. A 50-point night, no matter the outcome of the game, is crazy impressive when it comes just a couple weeks after a 51-point one. But hey, if you think this is good, just wait until Lillard has the teammates he deserves. Now that's something worth watching.
2 other things from Friday
The Knicks go full Knicks in the final minute
When New York went up 102-99 on a Carmelo Anthony jumper with 1:19 left in the game, it looked like they might actually beat the Boston Celtics. For the Knicks, who started the year surprisingly well before falling off dramatically, this could have been a statement win against the Eastern Conference's third-best team. Yet despite finishing the game with 104 points on 46 percent shooting, New York's offense fell to pieces in the final minute. The play below actually might be the worst possession in the NBA all year.
WTF IS THIS OFFENSE pic.twitter.com/c7fCl4hd1B— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) March 5, 2016
Anthony made a shot to go up 104-103, but after Avery Bradley answered back, the Knicks had 17 seconds left on the clock with the one-point deficit. After inexplicitly letting Boston use their foul to give with just three seconds left, Anthony's final shot was a 30-foot air ball. With quality looks on either of those possessions, there's a good chance New York would have won. Alas.
The West playoff picture is coming into focus
As the Jazz lost again, this time to the Memphis Grizzlies, it's looking harder and harder for them to make the playoffs this year. That's not to rule anything out with 20 games to go, but the Rockets -- who were clinging to the eighth seed just a week ago -- now hold a full two game lead for the spot, while the Trail Blazers take a full four-game advantage. Certainly, the top six seeds in the West has almost assuredly been locked into the playoffs, even if their seeding might change yet. With a 4.5-game lead on Utah in the sixth seed, even Dallas seems to be safe to write in as a playoff team, at least.
The question now falls to seeding. How high can the Blazers rise, or have they finally plateaued with the hot start? Will the one-game difference between the Thunder and the Clippers matter down the stretch? Questions remain, but mathematical eliminations will begin coming soon, followed closely by the final week of the season that decides everything for good.
Play of the night
Get him in the dunk contest right away.
5 fun things
The noted custom Kobe Bryant varsity jacket worn by Drake at All-Star Weekend is now Steph's.