Damian Lillard’s first game at the Moda Center since Dec. 2021 was a vintage performance, one that’ll add to the legend of Lillard’s decade-long, storied Portland Trail Blazers career.
After a disappointing 2021-22 campaign was cut short by surgery. After all the speculation and doubt about whether he could return to form. And after a difficult season opener made that chatter grow louder — the six-time All-Star offered his rebuttal Friday night:
A 41-point scoring masterclass against the Phoenix Suns in a thrilling 113-111 overtime victory. Despite all the outside doubt, nothing about the night shocked Lillard.
“Now that I’m free of [physical issues], that was the breakthrough moment for me...Getting through training camp without having to miss practices and being uncomfortable,” Lillard said after the win. “Once it came to the game, my game felt good. It was just a matter of time when [a big performance] was going to happen.”
After Wednesday’s season opener against Sacramento, head coach Chauncey Billups said “we gotta have other guys be there when it’s not [Lillard’s] night.” That’s what happened against the Kings, as Portland won 115-108, despite Lillard shooting 28% from the field.
Friday was the inverse of that model, as Lillard was there to keep Portland afloat on a night his teammates had off-nights. That is, until the supporting cast delivered when it mattered most.
But we’ll get to that part later. First, back to Lillard.
On a night in which his teammates struggled to score and excelled at turning the ball over, Lillard shot 12-25 from the field, 12-12 from the line and 5-12 on three-pointers, several of those makes coming on nasty dribble moves with a hand in his face.
He did most of that damage in the first half, helping Portland keep contact against a Suns team that had the best regular season record in the NBA last year. Lillard said it wasn’t one of those nights he felt an unconscious scoring tear coming. Yet, from his first basket — when Jusuf Nurkic found him for a cutting, reverse scoop over Devin Booker — he knew he’d be effective.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to be able to find some holes and some gaps in the way that they defend,’” Lillard said. “I knew at that moment, that I’ll be able to be in control enough to have a good game.”
Lillard followed that score by attacking Deandre Ayton out of the pick-and-roll for a right-handed floater. Then he pulled up for a transition triple on his next bucket. The much-talked about burst was noticeable (breathe easy, Bill Simmons) and his jumper looked pure.
By the time Lillard rained in back-to-back, tough three-pointers to close the first half, the home crowd knew what was unfolding. Vintage Dame Time.
Lillard finished with a career-high 28 first half points, shooting 66.6% from the field, 57.1% from deep and 100% from the free throw line.
Portland needed every bit of that offense. At the half, Portland’s next highest scorer was Josh Hart with 6 points. Anfernee Simons shot 1-7 from the field for 3 points and 4 turnovers. Jerami Grant, Portland’s leading scorer in game one with 23 points, didn’t attempt a single field goal.
On top of those issues, the Blazers were sloppy, coughing up the ball 12 times, leading to 23 points off turnovers and, at one point, a 12-point Suns’ lead. Despite all that, Portland only trailed 53-47. It was the Lillard Effect.
But help did eventually arrive for Lillard, in the form of a crucial stretch while he was on the bench. With Lillard checking out at the 2:44 mark in the third and Portland trailing 73-68, a second-unit lineup led by Simons seized Portland’s first lead of the night. Drew Eubanks and Justise Winslow provided energy, Simons got tough buckets and Nassir Little popped off for 7 big points. The lineup, which also featured rookie Shaedon Sharpe, outscored Phoenix 15-9 before Lillard checked back in with 9:22 left in regulation, giving Portland an 83-82 lead.
“They came in and they won that stretch and when they won that stretch the crowd got into it,” Lillard said. “We took the lead at one point and that kind of gave us the momentum to eventually win this game.”
It was nip-and-tuck the rest of the way. As Lillard cooled off at the end of regulation and in overtime, his teammates came through again. First, Simons banged in a triple off a Lillard pass to take a 100-99 lead with under two minutes to play. Then Nurkic — who was the steadiest Blazer all night outside of Lillard — nailed clutch free throws and scored 5 of Portland’s 11 points in overtime. The big man redeemed a lackluster opening game with 20 points (8-9 FT) and 17 rebounds against Phoenix.
“He played on two feet all night, not one foot, [not] rushing it,” Billups said postgame. “He was just very composed. And he was really good on the defensive end…just an excellent game from Nurk.”
Lillard had a buzzer-beating attempt to play hero in regulation, but it bounced off the rim (that would’ve been too storybook). It turned out, on Lillard’s big night, the game-winner belonged to Simons.
“I said, ‘Everybody just has to be ready,’” Billups said. “I don’t know who’s going to get this last shot, I don’t know who’ll get the opportunity, but I know who won’t. They gonna blitz Dame.’”
With the blitz on Lillard in the game’s closing seconds, Simons found the ball in his hands, isolated on the left wing against First-Team All-NBA defender Mikal Bridges. The former understudy, now firmly in the spotlight, sized Bridges up with three between-the-legs dribbles. Then he drove right for a sweeping, right-handed skyhook in the lane.
ANFERNEE SIMONS COMES UP CLUTCH IN OT‼️ pic.twitter.com/DWfyKhXXQ6— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 22, 2022
Ayton missed two free throws on the next possession and Portland survived. After a brutal first half, Simons delivered Phoenix the decisive blow. Billups was impressed with the shot, but he was also impressed with Lillard’s faith as the leader of the team.
“It just speaks to the confidence that he has, obviously, in Ant, but in all these guys,” Billups said. “That’s what we’re trying to continue to build.”
Lillard covered for his teammates early. They returned the favor late. And the new-look Blazers are 2-0.
“We just kept coming and I think that’s becoming our identity as a team,” Lillard said. “We scrappy. We gritty. We tough. And we together.”