Lillard leads Blazers beyond emotion, toward West semifinals Global on Apr 22, 2019 06:52 PM
Lillard leads Blazers beyond emotion, toward West semifinals
FILE - PORTLAND, OR - OCTOBER 24: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers is introduced before the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on October 24, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon.(Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith,

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- There is no advanced NBA metric for leadership from the point guard position.

But if there were, Damian Lillard’s rating would be off the charts.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ star put on a dazzling display Sunday night (Monday, PHL time) at Chesapeake Energy Arena, teaching a masterclass while sharing the floor with another one of the league’s truly elite point guards in Oklahoma City’s former Kia MVP and triple-double machine, Russell Westbrook.

Lillard staked the Blazers to a sizable third-quarter cushion, one that expanded to as many as 19 points, and manipulated the entire floor down the stretch as his crew exited the building with a momentum-stealing 111-98 victory and a commanding 3-1 lead in this first-round playoff series.

It was the sort of performance Lillard hinted at a day earlier, when the Thunder were still riding high from a Game 3 win where they taunted and tweaked the Trail Blazers, using every tool they could to make a dent in this series.

Lillard swore he wouldn’t allow his team to fall into the trap of trading taunts. There would be no retaliation for a reverse dunk from Paul George that didn’t beat the final buzzer when the game was already well in hand. There was no need to respond to Westbrook’s gestures and chatter after seemingly each and every basket.

He stuck to his word.

There was too much at stake in Game 4 for the focus to be anywhere but the task at hand; the win also snapped an eight-game road playoff losing streak dating back to 2016.

Lillard and the Blazers, still smarting from last spring’s sweep at the hands of the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, can ill afford to play petty games with so much riding on this postseason run.

They stumbled down the stretch of the regular season, dealing with injuries to CJ McCollum and then the devastating loss of their starting center, Jusuf Nurkic, to a compound fracture of his left leg late in a March 25 (Mar. 26, PHL time) overtime win against Brooklyn.

Portland's margin for error this spring is razor thin, what with all the doubters wondering if they’d fall victim in the first round again after earning the third seed for the second year in a row.

“When we had our backs against the wall dealing with those injuries, we trusted each other, we leaned on each other more,” Lillard said, after roasting Westbrook and the Thunder for 24 points and eight assists. “It just made us better in the long run, instead of us saying ‘We got some injuries, Dame you gotta average 35 and do all this extra stuff,’ instead of that the mentality was, 'Let’s keep the ball moving, make the right plays defensively and let’s just be a better unit.' Instead of turning to me or somebody else to score a bunch of points. We just made it a group thing and I think that was for our team.

“And as far as people doubting us coming in, you don’t just become the third seed luckily, especially two times in a row. Last year our performance wasn’t great in the playoffs. But I think we showed a lot by backing it up this year and getting the third seed again. We don’t focus on doubters. We focus on ourselves. We accept the responsibility for our past two playoff performances and we’ve moved on. And I think that’s one of the biggest and best things we did for ourselves is we did not hold on to it. We moved on and we have a better run now. We just have to finish it.”

They have an opportunity to finish this series at home Tuesday night (Wednesday, PHL time) because they’ve learned to move on immediately.

Their appetite for all of the “periphery” antics, as Blazers coach Terry Stotts categorized all of the back and forth from the first three games of the series, was nonexistent.

Steady had to be the rule.

“This was the chance they would have had to tie the series up,” Lillard said. “So you expect the excitement, you expect the passion. But after last game it was a big deal being made out of the back and forth and we weren’t emotional about it. We were just competing and passionate about the game as well.

“But it’s like I said earlier. We didn’t really engage in it because our focus was our team. Like I told you guys, we’re not going go out here and go crazy on the refs. We’re not going go out here and get in shouting matches and all that stuff. We’re going go out here do whatever gives us a chance to win games. And I was proud how our team stuck to that.”

While Westbrook played a strange, disengaged game at such a crucial time (5-for-21 shooting, missing his last 10 shots), Lillard was plugged in from the start, probing and studying the Thunder defense until he felt it was the right time to strike.

It was “Dame Time” in the third quarter, like it was in Game 3. Lillard scored 15 points, draining three straight back-breaking deep three-pointers, during a wicked run that saw the Blazers take complete control of the game, their lead stretching to as many as 19 points.

Even after a rough 2-for-8 shooting start in the first half Sunday night (Monday, PHL time), Lillard said he relished the position his team was in.

“I loved it, I think anytime we can be on the road playing against a really good team and not playing well and I haven’t been scoring the ball and we have a lead that late in the game that’s a great situation,” Lillard said. “Just because a lot of time I’m not in that position. I’m usually getting attempts, scoring the ball and that’s what’s working for us. Tonight it wasn’t like that. But I also know that all I need is to see it go in one time and once it goes in that can turn into three or four or five. That’s kind if what happened in the third quarter.”

The Blazers know what happens when Lillard taps his arm, pointing at the imaginary watch that signals his time to shine.

“Well, we’ve kind of come to expect it,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I think he really manages the game. I think he senses the moment when we need him to do different things. He’s an ultimate competitor. However the game is going, if it’s going well, if it’s not going so well, he’s going to give it his all. A lot of times that’s with his scoring. But I think his leadership, his passing, the way he directs the team, the example he sets, all that.”

“All that” was on display when the Blazers needed it most in Game 4. Lillard was also the counselor, floor general and calming presence needed to handle this delicate business.

He had to calm down young big man Zach Collins to keep him from getting a technical foul for jawing with an official. He repeatedly found Al-Farouq Aminu (19 points on 4-for-9 shooting from deep and nine rebounds) for quality looks from beyond the three-point line.

And when the Thunder tightened up their defense on him he deferred to his running mate McCollum (team-high 27 points) to beat back OKC's late rally.

“I think we’re a lot more mature than we’ve been in past years,” said McCollum, who closed the Thunder out late with 13 points in the fourth quarter. “We can handle adversity, understanding what we wanted to accomplish tonight … multiple times we had discussions about the fact that if they don’t have a black-and-red jersey on, don’t talk to them. Don’t talk to the refs, don’t talk to the other team. Execute our game plan, and let’s get out of here with a win. That was our mindset going into it.”

That shared mindset and leadership style from Lillard and McCollum is what drives these Blazers. It’s what will allow them to advance in this postseason and what will guide them in the future.

So when they embraced on the floor as they checked out of the game in the final moments Sunday night (Monday, PHL time), there was an acknowledgement of all they’ve been through and could envision in the near future.

“That’s my guy,” McCollum said. “We’ve been through a lot together through the course of our careers together. We’ve dealt with a lot of criticism and lot of praise and we were just having a good conversation that was private, so I won’t share with you guys. But we were just talking about what we can accomplish going forward and what we’ve accomplished so far and just the fact that we got love for each other.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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