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Damian Lillard won even if the Trail Blazers lost Game 5 to the Nuggets

Damian Lillard lived up to his own mythology even in defeat.

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets - Game Five Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers trailed the Denver Nuggets by 22 points midway through the second quarter in the pivotal Game 5 of their tied first round playoff series on Tuesday night. Portland would close that quarter on a tear to cut the deficit to three points going into halftime, setting the stage for the most thrilling game of the 2021 NBA Playoffs so far.

The Nuggets would walk away with a 147-140 win in double overtime to take a decisive 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. It was a gutsy effort by Denver powered its MVP-in-waiting Nikola Jokic, who authored a historic performance dotted with several moments of greatness down the stretch to help his team secure the win.

Teams that win Game 5 of a tied series in the NBA Playoffs go on to win the series about 82 percent of the time. This was an absolutely critical victory for Denver in every sense, yet somehow the winning side felt like an afterthought as the final horn sounded. That’s how transcendent Damian Lillard was for the Trail Blazers in defeat.

Lillard finished with 55 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds on 17-of-24 shooting from the field, and 12-of-17 shooting from three-point range. Those are numbers that have never been equaled in the history of NBA basketball, in the regular season or the playoffs, and they barely begin to tell the story of how sensational Lillard was on the night.

With the game stuck on NBA TV and finishing up after midnight Eastern, it’s likely a big chunk of NBA fans missed Lillard’s performance. Just know that those who witness it will never forget it.

Lillard certified his own mythology by providing two vintage Dame Time™ moments in the clutch to give the Blazers a chance at winning. First, Lillard tied the game at the end of regulation by getting Denver forward Michael Porter Jr. on his back heels and pulling up for a three that splashed in with under three seconds left on the clock.

As Denver took control in overtime, it was on Lillard again to rescue the Blazers. He hit a three-pointer with one minute left to cut the Portland deficit to five points, then hit another three-pointer with 23 seconds remaining to make it a two-point game.

Monte Morris’ missed free throw gave the Blazers another chance to force an extra frame, and again it was Lillard rising to the occasion. The Nuggets should have tried to foul in this situation again, but we’re glad they didn’t because it provided Lillard with a platform to hit another heroic shot to tie things up:

The Blazers ultimately ran out of gas in the second overtime. With the score tied with 90 seconds left, Jokic connected on an incredible assist for a Porter Jr. three-pointer that put Denver ahead for good. Instead of possibly getting a third potential Hollywood moment from Lillard, teammate C.J. McCollum stepped out of bounds on the ensuing possession, and the Blazer comeback fell short.

Damian Lillard got little help from his teammates in defeat against the Nuggets

Lillard could not have played any better — he even finished the night with only one turnover. Unfortunately, his teammates couldn’t rise to the occasion alongside him.

As Dame shot 7-of-9 from the floor at the end of regulation and across the two overtime periods, the rest of the Blazers combined to shoot 1-of-14.

Save for Robert Covington who played a solid two-way game, the other Blazers starters just didn’t give Lillard enough support. McCollum shot 7-of-22 from the field to finish with 18 points, and had the costly turnover at the very end of the game. Jusuf Nurkic fouled out with four minutes remaining in regulation — Blazers fans weren’t happy about the hooking call for his fifth foul — and ended the night with 13 points and six turnovers on 5-of-12 shooting. Norman Powell and Carmelo Anthony each finished with more field goal attempts than points.

The shot chart for the non-Lillard Blazers at the end of the game was ugly:

Damian Lillard reaction: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry react to Lillard’s playoff performance

NBA stars voiced their appreciation for Lillard on Twitter as he was going off against the Nuggets. This is speaks to the level of respect Lillard has from his peers around the league even though he’s yet to win at the highest level. Lillard’s authenticity combined with his loyalty to Portland and his ability to do things that even the greatest players in the world marvel at is a big reason why it often feels like Dame is your favorite star’s favorite star.

The mythology of ‘Dame Time’ continues to grow

Lillard forged his reputation long ago as arguably the greatest clutch player of his generation. He hit a walk-off three-pointer at the buzzer in Game 7 of his first ever playoff series to stun the Houston Rockets way back in 2014. He did it again in the 2019 playoffs, hitting an impossibly deep pull-up three-pointer over the outstretched arm of Paul George to clinch a series win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Lillard has made so many other big shots surrounding those two moments on his way to becoming one of the 10 best players in the league over the last five years. It would be easy for a cynic to view Dame Time as a slick marketing creation rather than some innate ability inside Lillard to consistently hit breathtaking shots in the biggest moments, but then he somehow seems to rise to the challenge again and again.

Now on the precipice of his 31st birthday, this game might have been Lillard’s finest yet. He had his opponents thanking a higher power when he finally missed.

The Blazers have never been expected to win the championship since they drafted Lillard. They are a slight underdog in the first round this year. Even though we have yet to see Lillard on the game’s biggest stage, performances like this one are a reminder that he’s the type of player who could conceivably carry a team to championship heights if he had the right pieces around him. He might go down the rare player whose reputation transcends ring culture at the end of his career.

For Lillard to live up to his reputation in the biggest moment of the Blazers season once again is something truly special. The Blazers need to win the next two games to keep their season alive, but the legacy of the greatest player in franchise history is already secure.