PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — With a big night against Golden State, Damian Lillard signaled that he’s asserting himself at a crucial point of the Trail Blazers’ season.
And where Lillard goes, the Blazers tend to follow.
“There comes a time in the season where everybody’s tired, everybody’s worn out, everybody’s physically and mentally drained,” he said. “The players got to go out there and make their minds up, are we going to do this or not? And I think we’re just, as a team, getting closer to that time. We’ve got to leave it all out there. We’ve got to go take it.”
Lillard had a franchise-best 61 points — including 11 3-pointers — this week in Portland’s 129-124 overtime victory over the Warriors.
It was the most points for a player in the NBA this season, and it broke Lillard’s own franchise record of 60 points set earlier this season against Brooklyn.
Afterward, a flood of admirers ranging from reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic to Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson recognized the achievement on Twitter. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler suggested the city create a holiday in honor of the All-Star point guard.
It was almost as though Lillard willed the win, loath to fall at home against the West’s last-place Warriors.
There’s as sense of urgency for both Lillard and the Blazers (19-26). The team got off to a rocky start this season with key injuries to Zach Collins and Rodney Hood, while big man Jusuf Nurkic continued rehab for his fractured left leg. The injuries are one reason Portland has languished recently in the bottom half of the standings.
The Blazers had greater expectations this season after their surprising run to the Western Conference finals last season.
Portland got a boost with the signing of Carmelo Anthony. Even though the veteran forward hadn’t played in a year, he has averaged 16.2 points per game and 6.3 rebounds for the Blazers since his arrival in November.
This week the team acquired veteran Trevor Ariza from Sacramento in a deal that sent Anthony Tolliver and Kent Bazemore to the Kings. Portland also got Wenyen Gabriel and Caleb Swanigan in the trade. Neil Olshey, president of basketball operations, called Ariza a “positional fit.”
Lillard, the team’s unquestioned leader, is averaging 27.9 points, a career best, along with 4.1 rebounds and 7.6 assists.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts noted Lillard’s leadership has guided the team out of slow first halves before.
“(In) season 2015-16 and 2016-17 we were down and out and he carried us both years down the stretch second half of the season, and he doesn’t quit, he never thinks he’s out of the game, never thinks he’s out of the season, always thinks he has a chance to win,” Stotts said. “And that’s what motivates him.”
During the 2017-18 season, Lillard had another big night against the Warriors, scoring 44 points in a win just before the All-Star Break. It touched off a 13-game winning streak that helped propel Portland into the postseason. Lillard drove the team’s success during that span, averaging 27.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.5 assists.
“He’s a great player. He’s an All-Star that’s had a million big shots in his career so none of it was surprising,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “You just take it for granted with him.”
In a sense it’s always Lillard Time as the Blazers attempt to claw out of the 10th spot in the West and back into the playoffs. Portland got good news Wednesday when Nurkic practiced with the team. CJ McCollum, who missed the past two games with a sore left ankle, also appeared to be back.
“Obviously, playing to try to go get a championship is an uphill battle, Mount Everest deal, but we’ve got a chance at getting in that tournament, be a playoff team and that’s just what my attitude is — get it to the playoffs,” Lillard said. “We’ve still got an opportunity to do that. The only thing I’ve held off on is trying to take it upon myself too early and not being able to sustain that to the closing stretch of the season. But it comes a time where you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”