Been there, done that, did it again
With about eight seconds left Tuesday night, Trail Blazers big man Meyers Leonard remembers turning to assistant coach David Vanterpool and saying five quick words:
"We've been here before, baby."
Vanterpool and Leonard had been, and so had Damian Lillard.
A black-and-white photo of Lillard's 2014 buzzer-beater against Houston – which gave Portland a 4-2 victory in that NBA first-round series – is on the wall in the locker room hallway at Moda Center.
That shot is part of a series of historic moments in franchise history.
It might be time to start planning space for another one.
Lillard vaulted himself into Blazers lore with a 37-foot winner at the buzzer over the outstretched hands of Paul George. He then waved goodbye to an Oklahoma City team that talked incessant trash in the first-round matchup, and he said hello to a mob of teammates and family members as the arena shook with elation.
Some of his teammates claimed they knew the shot was going in. The way Lillard was playing and given his constant embrace of late-game moments, they couldn't envision it any other way. He finished with a Blazers playoff-record 50 points in the 118-115 victory. Portland took the series, 4-1.
"That's easily the best performance I've seen with my eyes," said Leonard. "The way 'Dame' leads, the way he approaches every day, the teammate that he is, the friend that he is, the amount of work that he's put in, the fact that he wants to stay in Portland and make it happen here — the guy is simply unbelievable."
Blazers guard Seth Curry said the feeling in the locker room after the game was "special." The series was hard-fought despite it ending in five games, he said, and to get to the second round with all the adversity Portland has faced was special as well.
Where does that shot rank in winners Curry has witnessed?
"Best one I've seen live, for sure," Curry said. "But (Lillard) was built for that moment. We kind of felt it coming. I told our bench with 15 seconds left when he was dribbling, like, 'The game is over with. We ain't going back (to OKC).' He made me look good."
The game would have gone the other direction were it not for a late rally by Portland. The Blazers trailed by eight points with five minutes left and were down by as many as 15 in the fourth quarter.
Then Jusuf Nurkic showed up.
Nearly a month ago, Nurkic suffered compound leg fractures that ended his season. He was shown on the big screen at Moda Center standing on the sideline on crutches, and the crowd erupted. He hadn't been to the arena during a game since he was taken off on a stretcher.
It was an emotional moment for fans and, assuredly, for the players on the court. Nurkic's presence served as an inspirational boost to the team, Leonard said, and might have sparked Lillard's late-game heroics.
"I almost shed a tear of happiness seeing him," Leonard said. "'Nurk' was incredible for us this year. The fact that he shows up at such a huge game — you talk about Nurk and Dame's relationship – within everybody, something just shifted."
Nurkic wore a shirt that said, 'Got Bricks? Next Question,' which was a not-so-subtle dig at Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook. Nurkic and Westbrook have a history, but he didn't get a chance to keep the adversarial relationship alive in this series as he watched from home. Lillard took care of business on Nurkic's behalf, outplaying the talkative Westbrook and getting — in Lillard's view — the "last word."
Blazers reserve Rodney Hood called Lillard's performance a "coming-out party" of sorts. He acknowledged that Lillard already was among the top players in the league, but said this moment was "icing on the cake" for his growing legacy.
Evan Turner agreed. The backup guard-forward called Tuesday a "beautiful night" that proved Lillard's — and Portland's — legitimacy.
"Because we're in the Pacific Northwest, a lot of people don't stay up late to watch games or whatever," Turner said. "(Lillard) continues to show why he got first team all-NBA and why he continues to do what he continues to do. This was the stage to prove it, and he did."
Occasionally, there are moments during a team's season that seem to transcend what happened between the lines — glimpses of what got them to that point and burgeoning signs of where a team might be going. Overcoming adversity is a tired clichÉ, but destiny seems to write itself for great teams.
Is Portland a team of destiny, and is Lillard the arbiter of transformative change for a franchise that hasn't won a championship in more than four decades? That much remains to be seen as Portland awaits Denver or San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals.
For now, though, this moment is sweet, and it won't soon be forgotten by Lillard's teammates. The story is beginning to take shape, and it's up to those guys — and Lillard — to write the rest of it.
"It feels right," Leonard said, pointing to the adversity Portland dealt with this season and reflecting on the club's late owner, Paul Allen.
"Mr. Allen passes — unbelievable owner, cared about the team, cared about the community, wanted nothing more than for this team to win," Leonard said. "Nurk goes down — had an unbelievable season.
"It just seems right — that's the only way I can describe it."
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