The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 119-116 on Wednesday night, but of course that was not the story of the game. Damian Lillard made his debut as a visiting player in Moda Center. The first time in his career came in Year 12, way after he had secured a place in Blazers history forever.
I was lucky enough to be in attendance as a fan for this game. Dame was the player who helped me fall in love with basketball, and so I wore his jersey, a Milwaukee Bucks jersey that I had gotten since the trade. I don’t think I will find myself in Milwaukee any time soon to watch him play for the Bucks as a home team, so I wanted to wear the jersey despite still rooting for Portland.
I figured there would be a normal amount of joking comments and jabs coming my way. Even though I was cheering for the Blazers, I was wearing an opposing team’s jersey. This was not the case. There was a sense of respect from everyone in attendance, multiple fans decked out in Portland gear complimented my choice of jersey rather than mocked it.
The player introductions for an opposing team follow a formula in normal circumstances. Mark Mason, the in-arena announcer, generally uses a monotone voice to go through the lineup while the players go through their typical high-five line with teammates. That formula was not followed. Lillard was introduced with fanfare from Mason and met with uproarious applause. The crowd cheered and clapped for so long that the rest of the Bucks went through the line before being introduced, meaning the final three starters were introduced after the Bucks had already finished their general pregame routine.
Lillard didn’t take the first shot for the Bucks, but he took the next three. It almost seemed like the game plan for Milwaukee was to let Dame indulge himself for a little bit, and the crowd loved it. There were cheers when he shot, and sighs of disappointment when he missed. His first make, a layup, caused a massive shout from the stands.
The first timeout featured a tribute video from Portland. It showed all the impressive feats Dame had accomplished during his tenure here. These included series-winning shots against the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, his playoff masterpiece against the Denver Nuggets in 2021, and his career-high 71-point performance from last season.
When the game started up again, Lillard was able to find the bottom of the basket a few more times, each time met with a cheer. His first 3-point make was waved off due to a foul from Matisse Thybulle before the shot. Another disappointed response came from the crowd.
The second timeout was time for a second tribute video, this time focused on the work Lillard did for the community during his time as a Blazer. It included footage from plenty of volunteer work over the years, including quotes from Dame about how much he appreciated being able to give back.
Lillard made his first 3-pointer of the night from a couple of feet behind the arc, a sight that Blazer fans were more than familiar with. More and more cheers came from the crowd, despite that shot giving the Bucks back the lead.
Going into the game, my only hope was that it wasn’t a blowout. I wanted to watch Dame play for as long as possible, not wanting him to ride the bench for the final minutes of the game. Luckily, the Blazers seemed to want the same thing.
The Blazers were able to build a bit of a lead late in the game, and Moda Center was electric. Everyone was standing for the final minutes of the game. Milwaukee had brought the score close but was unable to take the lead.
A thunderous dunk from Dame with just over a minute left caused another cheer from the stands, an incredible sight considering the situation. Portland turned it over, and the reaction made it clear that every fan was rooting for the Blazers, despite all the cheers in favor of Milwaukee.
The situation now became one that every Blazer fan is familiar with; a two-point game, less than a minute left, and Damian Lillard with the ball. Only this time, he was playing with a different city on his chest. Fortunately for Portland fans, this time Lillard missed. I think it may have been the only time all game when the crowd cheered for a miss from Dame.
The Blazers closed out the game, a game they were projected to have no business being in. Lillard hugged a lot of his former teammates, which made me realize just how much the roster has turned around since even last season. It was bittersweet. On one hand, Moda Center is the best place in the world to be during a Blazer win. On the other hand, Dame’s return came in a loss and there was no true Dame Time moment to truly complete the feeling of him being back.
It was not a particularly memorable night for Lillard, outside of the obvious. He scored 25 points on 9/23 shooting from the field and 3/13 from deep. He had seven assists and six rebounds. A decent game, but not spectacular. But, of course, that did not matter.
Walking out, there was almost an air of reverence. Fans were smiling. A ‘Let’s go Blazers’ chant broke out between fans looking for an exit. I heard dozens of people talking about how incredible the game was, and how amazing it was for Lillard to be back.