LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Once the ball left Damian Lillard’s hands, it seemed inevitable the ball would drop into the basket. But then it didn’t.
The ball hit off the back of the rim. It sailed high above the basket. No matter. The Portland Trail Blazers’ star remains optimistic about everything. So Lillard told himself, "I think that’s going to go in." Seconds later, it did. So nearby teammate Carmelo Anthony remarked, "It wasn’t meant for us to lose."
Soon enough, Anthony’s prediction proved correct. Portland escaped with a 134-131 win over the Dallas Mavericks, allowing the Trail Blazers (34-39) to pass the Memphis Grizzlies (33-39) for eighth place in the Western Conference with one seeding game remaining. And that result largely traces back to Lillard. He scored 61 points, while shooting 17-of-32 from the field, 9-of-17 from deep and 18-of-18 from the free-throw line. He became only the second player in NBA history, along with Wilt Chamberlain, to log three 60-point games in a single season. And he punctuated the performance with a 33-foot 3-pointer that he knew would sink into the basket.
Dame gets the CRAZY bounce to tie his career high! #WholeNewGamepic.twitter.com/8AXu5wXg62
"I think that was my cousin. Rest in peace, Chef B," Lillard said. "I think that was him dropping that in for me."
Lillard revealed during his postgame press conference that his cousin, Brandon, died when he was quarantined in Portland after the NBA suspended the season in mid-March because of the coronavirus outbreak. He had planned to stop by Lillard’s house to make breakfast, but he passed out. Once Lillard arrived at his cousin’s place, he had already died.
That pain has stayed with Lillard amid his quest to help the Blazers appear in the postseason for a seventh consecutive career, as well as clap back at opponents and media members that have not accepted he has become the NBA’s best player during the restarted season.
"It was tough," LIllard said. "I just try to continue what I feel like he would want me to do, and I just been dealing with it that way. Just try to continue on the path I know he was proud of."
“When I let it go, I shot it real straight…so when it hit back rim and went straight up, I kept watching it.”@Dame_Lillard on the shot that gave him 61. pic.twitter.com/CAE0uZBk32
It seems safe to believe that Brandon feels proud of Lillard these days. He posted 61 points against Dallas on Sunday, which falls just one point shy of Kobe Bryant’s 62-point performance against the Mavericks in the 2005-06 season. After scoring 51 points against Philadelphia on Sunday, Lillard became only the eighth player to log at least five 50-point games in a single season. And he had these performances after uncharacteristically missing two free throws and a potential game-tying 3-pointer in a loss Saturday to the Clippers, which sparked repeated trash talk among the Clippers’ Paul George and Patrick Beverely as well as Lillard.
These games have become so memorable that Portland coach Terry Stotts likened Lillard’s recent effort to when he scored 50 points and a 37-foot series-clinching game-winner in playoffs last year against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"You got to put them in context of how important the game is," Stotts said. "If we lose this game we might not make it to the playoffs. So the magnitude of this game, even though it’s in an empty gym and in a bubble, the season was on the line and that makes it up there with the Oklahoma City game."
Lillard credited his cousin significantly for ensuring he would play at his best. As Lillard’s personal chef, Brandon would constantly remind him, "you got to eat healthy food." So Brandon would remind Lillard to eat breakfast and stay hydrated. He would bring enough water to his room. He would help Lillard train during the summer. No wonder Lillard called Brandon his "right-hand man."
"He was the one person I was with every day," Lillard said. "He was encouraging me."
Damian Lillard joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history with three 60-point games in a season. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
So when Lillard learned the tragic news, he sought closure. He said his goodbyes. He prayed over his body. Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, who also became close to Lillard’s cousin, visited and cried with his teammate. It seemed fitting then that Lillard encouraged McCollum to get the ball on the final possession despite laboring through injuries and shooting 2-of-14 from the field. McCollum sank a pair of foul shots for the 134-131 lead with 3.9 seconds left.
Lillard did not alert all of his teammates. Anthony learned the news during his postgame interviews. But he vowed to "talk to him and send my condolences." Lillard and Anthony have still bonded recently. Anthony hung out with Lillard for the rest of the day following Portland’s loss to the Clippers. They walked off the court together following their win against Denver. Earlier in the week, Lillard comforted teammate Josef Nurkic after his grandmother went into a coma after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
Hence, Lillard has stayed intent on staying in Portland because he prefers maintaining a family atmosphere than being part of the league’s fluid player movement.
"I don’t live my life or play the game to the standards or expectations of other people. I do it for the reasons that I love, which is to compete for the brotherhood, the connection to my teammates and coaches and performance staff and the fans and for us to be able to share something," Lillard said. "When I look back and say, 'We had something special,' be proud of it. And not that when I’m done playing I look back like, 'Oh, you did this and you bounced here and you bounced there.' That’s not what I wish for my career."
Granted, Lillard also believes he can win an NBA championship after appearing in last year’s Western Conference finals. One of the reasons: he has the utmost confidence in his game. Still, Lillard shared that close friends tell him "you don’t appreciate what you do enough."
Instead, Lillard tries to "always move on to the next thing."
Once the game ended, though, Lillard did not want to move on just yet. He looked at press row and shouted, "Put some respect on my name!" After all, Undisputed’s Skip Bayless has recently diminished Lillard’s play. So Lillard decided to shout to a handful of scribes because "those are the people who usually have something to say and put out whatever they’re going to put out."
I have never been buying nothing about you fam. You a joke. And after our private convo full of back pedaling you will never have my respect 🤡 https://t.co/do0yxFgUju
After yet another breathless performance, Lillard not only put more respect to his name. He offered respect to his cousin, who still remained with him in spirit, including when an improbable 3-point shot dropped into the basket.
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