Big shots, clutch performances, putting a team on his back. These are some qualities that great basketball players have. However what separates great players from franchise players is the ability to do these things when the game is on the line, when every game matters, in the NBA Playoffs.
The difference between Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul is that while both of them are outstanding players, Kobe Bryant could perform at an exceptional level when the plays mattered and the stakes were raised. Players like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Dirk Nowitzki perform at their highest levels between April and June.
Damian Lillard is a good example of a franchise player. When it comes to mid-April, the game-winners and clutch shots do not matter. 59 points in a game means nothing anymore. Winning in the playoffs takes consistency and lots of IQ.
Franchise players are able to adapt to the defense strategies that are planned for them and exploit them. Opponents have to plan for at least four games against a certain star player and being able to exploit that plan in the playoffs can be the difference between winning and losing.
From clutch shots and huge quarters, to double-doubles and crazy consistency, Damian Lillard fits the bill as one of the franchise's top players in the postseason and is quickly becoming one of the franchise's best players right in front of our eyes.
With the Blazers in the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year, I've decided to rank Damian Lillard's top-five playoff moments of his career.
5. Damian helps the Blazers avoid a sweep
After losing seven consecutive games to the Memphis Grizzlies and with the risk of losing an eighth, Damian Lillard willed the Blazers to a game 4 victory at the Moda Center that helped send the series back to Memphis for a fifth game.
Memphis is a team that has historically given the Blazers a hard time at home and on the road. Their "grit n grind" style of play was hard for the offensive-minded Blazers to cope with and it had resulted in a season sweep and three consecutive playoff losses.
That April night, Lillard went for 32 points and 7 assists in a 99-92 victory that was 50% Blazers and 50% Rip City faithful.
Whether it was Mike Conley or Tony Allen trying to defend Dame, the Grizzlies could not stop the will, determination, and pride of Lillard.
While the Blazers would go on to fall to Memphis in game 5, the focus Damian Lillard showed in game 4 with elimination on the line shows that, just like any other franchise player, he can singlehandedly will his team to a victory.
4. Lillard helps the Blazers steal game 1 in Houston
As the road team once again, the Portland Trail Blazers marched into Houston and came out with two wins. However, none may be bigger than what set the tone of the series, game 1.
With LaMarcus Aldridge putting up 46 points and 18 rebounds, it is understandable that people may have forgotten about any other player. What people should know is that despite Aldridge's big night, the Blazers still found themselves in overtime. While LA dominated poor Dwight Howard, Damian Lillard put up a very sneaky line of 31 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists.
What people also tend to forget is that this was Lillard's first career playoff game and he was going toe-to-toe with one of the best defenders at his position, Patrick Beverly.
Beverly is the point guard version of Draymond Green and boy did he drive Portland fans crazy. He got under the skin of Damian and danced around after making huge defensive plays (Draymond Green anyone?).
While he may be a hard guy to respect, his defense was phenomenal on the Portland guards and gave them fits throughout the entire series.
With all of the critics, going into his first NBA playoff game on the road, and being defended by the tenacious Patrick Beverly, putting up 30+ points and 8+ rebounds is an impressive feat within itself and puts this game into the top-5 playoff games of Damian Lillard's career.
3. Lillard gives the Blazers home court advantage
After being down 0-2 against the Los Angeles Clippers, a deficit that they haven't come back from since winning the championship in 1977, the Blazers found themselves catching all the right breaks.
In game 3, Chis Paul broke his hand and Blake Griffin went down with knee trouble essentially taking the Clippers playoff hopes along with them. The Blazers would go on to win the next two games and find themselves back at the Staples Center tied with the Clippers at 2 games a piece.
With their two top players being out and being forced to start Austin Rivers at point guard, the Blazers were now favorites for the first time all season.
No matter what their status was, it still didn't change the fact that until that game the Blazers were a dismal 2-12 in their previous playoff road games since the Mavericks series in 2011.
With all the being said, Damian Lillard came up with 22 points and 5 assists to help the Blazers hold on and avoid an "upset" in Los Angeles. More importantly, they won their 3rd playoff game in 6 years.
While the stat line from Lillard might not be the most impressive, he had a very solid game on the road and helped his team gain home-court advantage, therefore setting his team up for series-clinching game back at the Moda Center.
2. Dame has a huge night against his hometown team
After losing two games in the bay area, the Blazers came back home to try and avoid falling into an insurmountable 0-3 hole. The Blazers had a little bit of confidence having kept game two close, but these were the almighty 73-9 Golden State Warriors.
As has been the case with the other games on this list, Damian Lillard would not let the Blazers lose. He had scored a career-high 51 point at home against the Warriors earlier in the year, and he was going to again if his team needed him to.
Damian finished the night with 40 points and 10 assists, his fourth career playoff double-double. The Warriors kept trying to throw out taller defenders at Lillard which did not work.
40 points is a lot to score in a playoff game, but what was more impressive was how he got his shots. Dame shot 8-13 from beyond the arc and 14-27 overall (a pretty efficient game for that volume of shots). Scoring those 40 points with 10 assists is also downright impressive.
While everybody had the Blazers rolling over in a game 3 in Portland and some pundits predicting the Blazers to get swept, Damian Lillard made sure the Blazers were not going to lose. Not that day, not that game.
1. Damian hits "the shot" in his most efficient playoff game ever
Game 6 against the Houston Rockets was as close to a "must-win" game as there could be for the Portland Trail Blazers. The Blazers controlled their destiny playing in Portland in front of their fans with a chance to close out a first round series for the first time in 14 years.
All the fans knew that going back to Houston for a game 7 was almost certainly a death sentence for the Blazers. No way could the Blazers defeat James Harden, Dwight Howard, and a would-be confident Houston Rockets team down in Houston! This vibe was almost certainly felt by the players as well.
The stakes were as high as they've ever been for the Blazers in the past decade and they played as determined as they possibly could have.
Houston's dynamic duo of Harden and Howard combined for SIXTY points and with solid contributions from Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin, it looked as if it was going to be Houston's night.
Once Chandler Parsons corralled a loose ball and played it in with .9 seconds left on the clock, many thought the series was going to be over. Little did they know what the second-year player out of Weber State was going to do.
Most assumed that the ball was certainly going to go to the Blazers best player LaMarcus Aldridge in that situation as the Blazers were only down by 1. However, before the city of Portland could comprehend what was happening, Nicolas Batum passed the ball to an open Damian Lillard who rose up and shot what would be the biggest shot of his life.
While this shot will forever be linked alongside Lillard in Blazers history, Lillard could not have played a more complete game than he did in game 6. Damian scored 25 points to go along with 6 boards, 3 assists, and 3 steals while shooting 57% in what turned out to be his most efficient playoff performance ever.
While many people will only remember Lillards big shot, it is worth mentioning that Dame impacted the game in many other ways which contributed to the Blazers exiting the first round victorious for the first time in 14 years.