Attention is the utmost compliment in public life, and Damian Lillard has received plenty of it over the past week.
In his Portland Trail Blazers’ win-or-go-home squeaker Thursday night, the Brooklyn Nets threw two bodies at Lillard before he even crossed half court. It seemed the most sensible strategy after Lillard drained a pull-up jumper from a spot so far from the basket that he risked having to quarantine for being outside the bubble. The Memphis Grizzlies were just a little less zealous, trapping Lillard high in the half court in Saturday’s play-in game.
Before the Blazers’ showdown with the Grizzlies, Lillard was named MVP of the seeding games. It’s a modest award for a star with such considerable ambitions, but an appropriate one given his exploits since NBA basketball resumed on July 30. He logged games of 45, 51, 61 and 42 points in four of the Blazers’ five seeding game wins.
On Saturday, Lillard put up 31 points with 10 assists. But he had plenty of help in the Blazers’ 126-122 win over Memphis, the NBA’s first play-in game to determine a playoff spot since 1956. Portland will now face the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the first round on Tuesday.
Portland mounted a potent inside-outside attack, with center Jusuf Nurkic exploiting Memphis’ perimeter pressure and dominating in the paint. On a day when he publicly announced he had lost his grandmother in Bosnia to COVID-19, Nurkic put up 22 points and gobbled up 21 rebounds. His presence was a stark reminder that the Blazers, as currently constituted, are far more dangerous than the No. 8 seed would suggest.
In the game’s nip-and-tuck closing moments, Lillard deferred to backcourt running mate CJ McCollum on the perimeter. With the score tied at 111, McCollum scored the Blazers’ next three field goals, including a couple of 26-footers to enable his team to nudge the lead to six with just over a minute left.
“Sometimes it’s taking a step back and letting somebody else be out front,” Lillard said. “Like tonight, CJ got going and got rolling. You’ve got to recognize situations like that, take a step back, allow that to happen.”
For the Grizzlies, who had a firm lead on the No. 8 slot coming into the seeding games, Saturday’s result is disappointing. But for a team whose estimated win total by bookmakers was 25.5 wins, the season was an incontrovertible success. In many respects, they’re a mirror of the 2015-16 Blazers — a team that wildly exceeded expectations in the first year of a reboot. Like that Portland team, Ja Morant & Co. seem destined for sustained success.
Morant was brilliant on Saturday (35 points, eight assists), particularly in the second half when he exhibited his full repertoire — his burst off the dribble, his ability to create in midair, and his vision. Though he’s not yet a high-efficiency shooter from range, he hit three of his six attempts from beyond the arc.
With their penchant for drama and a 3½-game deficit in the standings to make up, the Blazers emerged as the bubble’s best redemption story. By the first week in December, Portland was without its starting center (Nurkic), and both starting forwards (Rodney Hood and Zach Collins) because of injury. The Blazers muddled through the regular season, with Lillard missing a half-dozen games because of a groin injury that never fully mended before the hiatus. They arrived in Lake Buena Vista with a 29-37 record.
Even with the return of Nurkic and Collins, Portland isn’t exactly the portrait of perfect health, as McCollum is playing with a fractured vertebrae and Hood hasn’t returned from his Achilles injury. Collins played only seven minutes Saturday because of left ankle inflammation. Swingman Trevor Ariza, meanwhile, opted out of the restart.
But there’s an intestinal fortitude to the Blazers. Lillard and McCollum are the backcourt that led them to the Western Conference finals last spring. Despite being moved back to the starting small forward position after finally coming to terms with playing out his career as a power forward, Carmelo Anthony continues to give Portland shot creation — he hit an enormous 3-pointer to ice the game — even as he chases perimeter scorers around the floor. And 2018 second-rounder Gary Trent Jr. has been a revelation on the wing, adding yet another weapon to Portland’s perimeter arsenal.
As a reward for closing out Memphis on Saturday, the Blazers will meet the Lakers on Tuesday. For the Lakers, it’s a far more treacherous matchup than a top seed generally draws in the first round. Superstars like Lillard have a way of randomizing a series with their dominance. Give them four or five games, and they can eke out two or three wins, hanging a series in the balance. McCollum, as demonstrated with flair on Saturday, is no slouch either. He’s one of the league’s most accomplished shot-makers, and his 37-point performance in Game 7 on the road last May catapulted the Blazers into the conference finals.
“[The Lakers] are the No. 1 seed for a reason,” Lillard said, “They’ve got the best player in the world on their team. But at the same time, we didn’t fight as hard as we fought in the bubble to just say, ‘All right, we’re the eighth seed, and just go out there and get beat up on.’ We feel like we have a chance in a series against anyone in this league.”
The Lakers have two catalysts of their own — LeBron James and Anthony Davis — and the Blazers can’t field the kind of combo forward who can match up with either for a fair fight, let alone both. As explosive as the Blazers are offensively, their defense is often overmatched — witness Memphis’ 70-point second half.
The Lakers are a disciplined defensive squad with good size, and an anchor in Davis who both provides rim protection and covers ground. While they’re as thin in the backcourt as the Blazers are deep, they can downsize when necessary.
Whatever the outcome, the star-studded Lakers-Blazers matchup — one that features three of the game’s top 10 players — should provide far more compelling viewing than the usual 1-vs.-8 fodder.
As for the play-in format, it proved to be a wild success for the league. Advocates have long touted a play-in’s capacity to create greater incentives for teams to compete at full intensity during the final month of the season, which is typically a snoozefest. The past couple of weeks in the bubble offered just a taste of what’s possible in the proposed “7-through-10” play-in format.
Imagine a cluster of teams ranging from Nos. 4 to 8 vying to remain in the top six, and out of the high-risk play-in bracket. One tier down, another group of teams — say Nos. 9 through 12 — fighting to reach the No. 10 slot. There would invariably be a little overlap, lending even more madness to the NBA’s March and April.
Fans love elimination contests, and a play-in tournament would feature six games worth over a three- or four-day period. Such a product could generate between $85 million and $100 million, a range of league sources say, useful for a league that needs to create new streams of revenue at a precarious moment.
Given the excitement of the past two weeks, the question isn’t whether the NBA will implement a play-in tournament permanently in the near future, but why the league didn’t introduce it years ago.