The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 113-106, at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, dropping Portland's record to 33-45.
It took nearly a year since draft night, 3,000 minutes played and nine straight losses, but Damian Lillard's placid pond in an empty forest exterior finally showed a few ripples this week.
The point guard so poised that he's made the word "poised" played out, let it be known that two things are starting to tick him off: unfavorable foul calls and those observers who, as the Notorious B.I.G. once put it, pray and pray for his downfall.
Lillard's quiet tension has been building as the last few losses have mounted up. A little snippy with a comment here, a little too emphatic in the applying of lotion to his face there. Losing eats at him; his comments and demeanor, as noted in previous write-ups, have stood in contrast to some of his teammates, who have been a bit more care-free, a bit more willing to move past a loss.
He earned the first technical foul of his career for screaming a profanity after a foul call, a predictable release following his late drive that came up empty, with no call, against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. He let a little something show on Monday, too, when he tweeted the following in response to a column suggesting that his statistical decline in April might be an indication that he's wearing down: "'Damian Lillard might be wearing down' -- A person who has no idea what's inside my chest lol."
You can almost picture the Biggie Smalls curled lip smile as you read that. It was the closest he's come to swiping at the media this season and it was genuinely funny; at the same time, everyone understands that everything about Lillard is serious.
His career-high 38 points -- in a shootout against Kobe Bryant that will be remembered for years -- was, then, as clear a statement game as you will ever see. Think I will stand here and take these calls? Oh, no. Think I'm wearing down? Here's 38 plus nine assists in a showdown with a five-time NBA champion. Hold that.
"All season, people have been waiting to say, 'Oh, he's hitting the wall, he's wearing down'," Lillard told Blazersedge. "Tonight, I just wanted to come out and be ready to show that I'm not wearing down. I could play 20 more games. I felt like I needed in these last couple games, to play a little harder, finish a little stronger."
Statement made; statement received.
Even after watching every second of his season and reciting every new statistical achievement, this was a performance to make you pause and reconsider his ceiling. The love for the moment, the breakneck energy early, the range on his shot, the free throws to fill things out.
"That's about as good as you can get," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "That's about as good a rookie as I've ever seen."
The catalog of post-game compliments was so deep it could fill its own Tumblr.
"I just told him he was a bad boy," Bryant said, explaining his post-game message to Lillard. "He was out there cooking with gasoline tonight. He was fantastic."
This game was everything (most of) the last few weeks haven't been: entertaining, competitive, hard-fought, dramatic and promising. Starting four rookies for the first time in franchise history, it took about four minutes of game action for everyone to forget that JJ Hickson was ever on this Blazers roster. Up and down the court the game went -- LaMarcus Aldridge finishing plays in transition, Portland's small lineups piling up points -- as both sides seemed content to fun and gun.
Some time around Lillard's third step-back jumper (or was it his fourth?), Bryant realized that he wouldn't have the luxury of waiting in the weeds until the fourth quarter.
"Lillard came out and just started torching us," he said. "I figured I would try to keep up the pace. It was like a marathon runner, when a guy just takes off, and the guy behind him doesn't really want to chase after him but he has to just to keep pace."
So there they went -- 17 points apiece in the first quarter -- trading deep threes, mid-range jumpers, finishes at the rim, drawn contact. Did Bryant -- and Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard -- pass him on the 26th mile? Sure. Did Lillard push a desperate team just short of its breaking point? He sure did.
"I think it was a lot of pride involved," Lillard said. "[Bryant] being a Hall of Fame shooting guard, me being a rookie that's not going to back down."
Bryant was magnificent, playing all 48 minutes and pouring in a season-high 47 points, a record for an opponent in the Rose Garden.
"He was on a mission," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "What can you say about a 47 point performance?"
This, at the age of 34, one night after scoring 30 points in 41 minutes against a feisty New Orleans Hornets team in Los Angeles.
"There's no secret, there's no magic formula," Bryant said. "I watch what I eat and I train my ass off. I'm in the type of condition right now that a lot of my predecessors at this age probably couldn't be in."
His many manners of scoring were supplemented by two unusual displays of restraint down the stretch. Everyone in the building -- hell, the world -- knows that Howard has a mismatch every time down in the post. On two critical possessions late, Bryant laid off the off-balance jumpers, allowing L.A. to get into high-low situations in which Gasol was able to feed Howard for sure-thing buckets at the rim. These were winning, team plays on a night and during a season in which the individual has often come first for the Lakers.
"He's probably the most focused player I've ever played against as far as being locked into the game," Lillard said of Bryant. "He says stuff to his teammates, directing them, but he's just locked in the whole game, you can tell he's out to get in the playoffs."
Performances like this -- Bryant's and Lillard's alike -- make the NBA viable. Who among us -- players, fans, media, team employees, arena staff members -- wouldn't trade eight ugly losses for a shot at a game like this? And once you've tasted this? Good luck putting it down.
"It was Damian versus Kobe," Aldridge said, after finishing with 17 points (on seven-for-13 shooting) and 16 rebounds. "That was fun to watch."
The Lakers' three-headed monster of Bryant, Gasol and Howard combined for 90 points, 25 rebounds, 15 assists and nine blocks. Lillard didn't have the horses around him to keep up. Although he swore off moral victories earlier this week, there was a satisfaction to his self-presentation that hasn't been there after recent games.
"They're a team that's right there, trying to get the last spot in the playoffs," he explained. "This is like the Super Bowl for us, we're not going to make the playoffs. Now it's just an opportunity for us to spoil it for people. I thought we gave them our best shot."
It was Portland's best shot, it was Lillard's best shot and this was just about the best shot Bryant has left, considering he put up eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks and three steals to go with his scoring boom. The end result brought down chants of "MVP" from thousands of Lakers fans in the arena; L.A.'s locker room, having dodged a damn good bullet, was giddy.
Lillard, the man who doesn't want to be sold short, by the referees or by doubters in the media, seemed to grasp exactly what Bryant's performance meant, at this stage of his career, and what his own performance means as his rookie year comes to a close.
"He's one of the greats," Lillard said of Bryant, who made his NBA debut a few months after the Blazers point guard's sixth birthday. "I get to be on the floor with him before he stops playing in the league. Not only that, I get to compete against him. I got to guard him, he got to guard me. I enjoyed the challenge."
Informed of Bryant's gracious words about his play, Lillard opted for the same mental approach that he takes in response to unfavorable treatment from referees and the same thought process he embarked on when presented with the notion that fatigue is catching up to him. The stone face -- the one that cracked into a curse word at a referee, that cracked a joke on social media in response to a doubter, that cracked a slight smile when told of a living legend's glowing review -- reset itself at a familiar place: the path between setting expectations and realizing them.
"That just kind of motivates me to keep getting better," he said of Bryant's praise for his game. "I see what people think of me, they see what I can become. It's my job to actually become it."
Random Game Notes
- The Rose Garden was announced as a sellout. Only a few empty seats. What in the world were those people thinking?
- This was a loud and boisterous crowd that went back and forth on the cheering before -- I'm as shocked as you are to be writing this -- the Lakers contingent overwhelmed the building in the game's closing minutes. Very, very loud "MVP" chants for Bryant down the stretch. Never thought I would see and hear that.
- Blazers president Chris McGowan was on hand to help deliver Lillard's NBA Community Assist award before the game.
- Lakers guard Steve Blake literally dove off the Kiss Cam to avoid the embarrassment.
- One fan had a sign that read "White Lightning Strikes" with Luke Babbitt's jersey number. Babbitt finished with 12 points on four-for-five shooting from deep. That fell just short of his season-high for points (14) and tied his season-high for made three-pointers.
- Another sign read: "Lakers, second best team in L.A."
- Former Oregon Ducks football player Ed Dickson was in attendance.
- Rarely will you ever see a defense disrespect an NBA player as badly as the Lakers treated Will Barton. "Daring him to shoot" would be a giant understatement. This was total, purposeful neglect. Barton finished with nine points on four-for-12 shooting in his first career start. He also got absolutely stuffed by Bryant, his favorite player.
- Sasha Pavlovic came from nowhere to score eight points, including a back-down jumper in isolation that earned him an and-one (what!?). Those eight points were more than he's scored in every game since January 11 combined (obviously that includes a number of DNPs).
- While many probably left disappointed by the Blazers' slow close -- Portland managed just 16 points in the final period -- this was an exceptional entertainment value. That this could happen with so many players out or limited by injuries (Batum, Matthews, Hickson, Steve Nash, Metta World Peace, Jordan Hill, etc.) makes it all the more remarkable.
- Lillard scored seven points in 23 seconds thanks to a technical foul free throw, three more free throws and a quick three. You don't see that too often.
- My SI.com column from the game, heavy on Bryant.
- Okay, time for a bunch of leftover quotes.
- Bryant on the Lakers' predicament heading into their final three games of the season, one game up on the Utah Jazz for the No. 8 seed: "This isn't breathing room. This isn't breathing room at all. I'm still on edge. I'm still on edge."
- Bryant on Lillard: "After the game you can certainly appreciate that type of talent. His work ethic and his mentality."
- Lillard made a point to call Aldridge "our best player" and said that he didn't feel burdened to "carry the load" because Aldridge played, even if the other starters were out.
- Lillard said he expects scoring outbursts like this to become more rare as he progresses in his career, presumably because he plans to evolve as a distributor or because he expects to play with teammates that will do more of the scoring: "My first year I'll probably score more points in a game than in the future, hopefully I will. Right now it's just about us winning a game. I'm just trying to help us win a game, end this losing streak."
- Lillard on getting the technical: "I'm not bummed about it at all. I wasn't trying to get one. I felt like we needed to play with some emotion. I got mad, I said something and he gave me a tech."
- Lillard on guarding Bryant: "It's tough because he's a physical player. From the outside you might not see how physical he is in the post, how physical he is when he's trying to get position. It's tough, he kind of baits you, pulls you into playing a physical game. He has a lot of respect [from the referees] and he's going to get those calls. He's definitely a tough cover."
- Lillard's version of Bryant's "bad boy" post-game message: "He just told me 'Good game, keep working.'"
- Lillard said finding a win in Portland's final four games to halt this losing streak isn't necessary to define 2012-13 as a positive season: "I don't think we have to win for this to be considered a positive season. I think after all the work we put in and how well we played all season, I think it's only right that we end the season winning a game."
- Standings watch: The Blazers are two games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the No. 11 spot in the 2013 NBA Draft order. Portland is now five games up on the Dallas Mavericks for the No. 12 spot and both teams have just four games left to play.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I thought that was a very good effort by the team. It was unfortunate we couldn't pull it out but I was very pleased with our effort from beginning to end. Couple plays down the stretch could have gone either way, a couple shots could have gone either way, for the most part that was a well played game against a team that was pretty hungry to make the playoffs.
He was on a mission. He played the whole game. Usually he feels out the game, he came out very aggressive from the start. He gets to the line, shoots 18 free throws, he's just aggressive. What can you say about a 47 point performance? he's done that before.
Blazers' offense ran out of gas or Lakers made adjustments in the second half?
A little bit of both. I don't know what we shot in the second half, but the first half was exceptional. 69 points, that's an exceptional half. They stayed with their bigger lineup a little bit longer in the second half. WIth the smaller lineup we're able to space the floor and it creates offense for both teams. With the bigger lineup, it slows it down a little bit and you don't get the same looks.
He came out very focused. You could tell he attacked the game from the very beginning, he was very assertive. He's done it before, obviously not 38 points, but I liked that with Wes and Nic out he knew we needed the extra scoring and he picked up the slack.
I wouldn't call it a moral victory but I'm pleased with the way we competed in the end of the Dallas game and tonight. From day one, competing and getting better. I thought all the young guys, Will, Victor, Meyers, they all got an opportunity and they gave a good effort. Even though Kobe had 47 I thought Sasha did a very good job, making him work for what he got. I thought we were active on our double teams. I think that's what I want to see as a coach and the fans want to see that type of effort every time.
Change lineups towards a youth movement after this?
We'll see how it goes, see what happens.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter