The shot was, by any objective measure, flipping stupid. Dame had 10-plus seconds to make up his mind and decided right away on a step-back a few feet to the right of the center court logo, over an all-world six-foot-nine defender. The point, really, is that it was stupid, and that he was sure he could make it anyway.
Dame took a lot of those kind of shots against the Thunder—decided his effective range was wherever he could spot the orange of the rim from and just fired whenever the impulse struck him. He took 18 threes on Tuesday night and made 10 of them. He shot 26-for-54 from three for the series. This isn’t all he did, but it describes the absurdist dimension of his dominance. The only way to guard Dame was with a bear hug and fire blanket. The rules of basketball being what they are, the Thunder were instead forced to repeatedly watch the ball soar over their heads and clean through the net.
It’s been a while since he’s come good in a playoff series. Until this tour de force against Oklahoma City, Lillard had mostly been poor in the postseason. From 2015 through 2018: 24.3 PPG on 38.5 percent shooting, 32.5 percent on 8.3 three-point attempts per game, and 5.2 assists against 3.1 turnovers per game. Everyone remembers his series-winner against the Rockets in 2014, but he was ordinary against the Spurs in the following round, and when the Blazers took out the Clippers in 2016, that was more in spite of Dame’s inefficient contribution than because of it. If you’ve watched Portland crash out of the playoffs, you’ve likely seen a Lillard who doesn’t match the myth: clanking contested 25-footers, tripping through double teams, the Blazers crowd growing dismally quiet as the opponents’ lead expands to double-digits.
It’s not as if Dame’s hero complex has dissipated. The numbers tell us he’s simply making shots he used to miss. He’s definitely enjoying a hot streak at the exact right time, but there is something to be said for perception–the way you feel when you see a player step into a jumper. It’s got to do with who they are and how they’ve been playing lately, the shape of their body as they rise up and the angle of their release. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but everybody knows it intuitively. He’s gonna drain this one. That was nearly every shot Dame took against the Thunder. From 15 feet or 30, everything looked right. His jumper was like eight hours of sleep and a good breakfast.
Last week, I lamented the limits of Russell Westbrook’s hyper-aggression, how it’s always going to lead him down a dead end because he can’t beat math for two months straight. Is there a meaningful difference between his approach and Dame Lillard’s? The obvious thing is that Dame can actually shoot threes and Russ is streaky at best, but beyond that they have similar ideas about themselves. They’re the kings of two less-than-huge market franchises, each with their own cultishly devoted fanbases. They both have muscular personalities and nigh unpuncturable egos. They’re rivals in part because we place them in the same phylum. What’s the label on that drawer, exactly? Doomed Gunslingers?
But in some fundamental sense they are not at all the same guy. People don’t bring up Dame’s poor playoff record as often as they do Russ’s post-Durant struggles for the simple fact that many of them like Dame a lot more. Russ is surly, and Dame is polite. Russ is rageful, and Dame is poised. They’re both highly cultivated public figures, but Russ’s schtick is vain and forbidding. Dame explicitly positions himself as a role model, and if you can put his flagrantly lame rap career to one side, he just about manages to make professionalism seem cool. All of this matters, if not on the court, then in terms of the way fans and media frame what each player does on it.
That’s not unfair. There’s a tortuous tug-o-war in sportsworld over whether the enterprise is an art or a science, and though—increasingly and crushingly—the science side wins out more often than not, it still stammers when the elemental question is posed: Who are you rooting for? No stat will figure that out for you, but then you don’t need any help. The heart is a muscle, and it’s a locker for what you believe.
So Dame’s big moment, a smidgen under a half-decade after his last big moment, is extra sweet because of who he is and what he has come to represent. If this distorts our understanding of him, I would argue that our distorted understanding is truer than the more balanced one. That’s one of the best shots I’ve ever seen. Wild, wild stuff. And as he was lining it up, I knew he’d make it. Like you would ever know if I was a liar. It’s Dame Lillard. He does this all the time—in fact or in some realm beyond it.