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Blazers PG Damian Lillard’s 71 Not Wowing to All in the NBA World

Was Damian Lillard’s explosion against the Houston Rockets a product of diminished NBA defense and poor competition?

NBA: Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard did what an infinitesimally small percentage of human beings are capable of doing on the highest stage, scoring 71 points against the Houston Rockets last night. However, it was not a jaw-dropper for all who bore witness or caught wind.

DJ Dunson of Deadspin rightfully and succinctly contextualized the scoring insurgency this season with necessary context, but in the same breath took away from Lillard’s handiwork, saying:

“By the time the alert had gone out to the east coast that he’d scored 41 before halftime (courtesy of a logo-length three) it was already 10:14 on a Sunday night.

“But even Lillard’s prolific scoring feels like it’s become ubiquitous throughout the league. Every superstar seems to have one of these games these days. The Clippers and Kings combined for 314 just a night earlier.

“The once-rare phenomenon of huge individual scoring has become so commonplace this season that they’ve begun to lose their luster. Donovan Mitchell already put up 71 this year in an overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls last month. Lillard himself now has five 60-plus scoring performances in his career, including one earlier this year.”

Much of the nation missed Kobe Bryant scoring 81 points against the then-14-27 Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22, 2006. It was aired on FSN West on a Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m. There wasn’t a social media culture where people were hitting one another up to tune in, nor an abundance of smartphones in circulation with up-to-the-second alerts. Save Laker fans and Bryant enthusiasts, unless your eyes were glued to the ESPN ticker, chances are you marveled at the SportsCenter highlights the following morning.

Bryant had 26 points at the half, which while amazing in and of itself, did not forecast his 55-point explosion in the second half. All this to say, Bryant’s performance lives on forever. Even though Devin Booker got the last of his 70 points in garbage time against the Boston Celtics on March 4, 2017, the fact remains that he scored 70 points. The same can be said for Donovan Mitchell (Cleveland Cavaliers) and his 71-point forerunner to Dame’s record-breaking night.

Hypothetically speaking, if three sprinters were able to run sub-9.70 100 meter dashes at the next Summer Olympics, would it naturally garner marvel at the fact that three human beings were able to run at unprecedented speeds, or downplay in that only three runners had done so prior in recorded history?

Lillard was competing against the 13-47 Houston Rockets — a professional NBA team and not of “AAU” level (let alone college), no matter how bad they’ve played thus far — as well as the clock. There were also serious implications on this game, which Lillard expounded upon in his post-game interview.

While the Blazers have sunk to the bottom of the Western Conference standings, context shows that they — the No. 11 seed — are only two games out of the No. 6 seed. It also indicates that the ill fortune of the three teams ahead of them, counterbalanced with Rip City upping their game, could ascend them to the No. 8 seed in a matter of days. Whether or not that transpires remains to be seen, but the fact remains, and next to it, the logical probability.

For those that may have missed it, Lillard dropped 71 points on 22-38 shooting from the floor in only 39 minutes — a new NBA record. He did so in regulation, holding onto a lead, with real implications on the line down the stretch of the season. The lead was only nine with just over 10 minutes to play, and he was without his third and fourth best players (Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkic). His second best player — Jerami Grant — recently returned from injury, added to a new cast of characters he’d yet to suit up with post-NBA trade deadline.

Lillard had five three pointers from 32 feet or further — hard to make irregardless of defense. He had two more from 28 feet out. Even watching the highlights shows that the defense committed to showing him different looks of the screen-and-roll, forcing Dame to turn the corner, or use other moves to create space.

It’s valid to attribute some of the burgeoning scoring performances of late to the defense in today’s NBA, but crossing the 70-point threshold ought to be taken for what it is, especially the way in which it was done.