Dame, set, match
The clock had not struck midnight, and the scene was already indelibly etched in Trail Blazers lore.
Game clock ticking down, tie score, and Damian Lillard with the ball just across midcourt, a lion stalking its prey.
Launch from 37 feet. Splat!
It's the Blazers 118, Oklahoma City 115.
Lillard's teammates sprint out to mob him, creating a dog pile on the Moda Center court.
Streamers drop from the rafters. Partisans celebrate as if Mardi Gras has broken out in the stands.
Lillard hugs his brother, Houston, for the longest time, then his sister, Lanae. He takes a victory lap around the court, taking a bow in front of his constituents.
The noise level is deafening. The fans serenade with "MVP! MVP!"
And at some point through the chaos, he waves at the Oklahoma City bench.
"The series was over," Lillard would explain later. "That was it. I was just waving goodbye to them. After Game 3, (Dennis) Schroder was out there, pointing to his wrist. They were doing all these celebrations, and we kept our composure. After one win, that's what they decided to do. We decided, 'OK, what we want to do is win four games. When we do that, there's going to be nothing to talk about.'"
This is what happens when the gladiator strikes at the most opportune moment.
"The legend grows," Portland coach Terry Stotts said after Lillard's buzzer-beating 3-pointer Tuesday night, a shot that clinched the first-round playoff series in five games.
Label it "The Shot II."
Lillard had done it before, five years ago on the same Moda Center floor, burying a 3 as time expired for a Game 6, 99-98 victory over the Houston Rockets, clinching that first-round series.
Tuesday's series-winning shot capped a record-breaking 50-point performance that set a franchise record for a playoff game. Lillard becomes the first player in NBA history to score 50 points and sink a game-winning shot at the buzzer in the same playoff game.
"That's why they call him 'Logo Lillard,'" said Portland center Enes Kanter, his separated left shoulder heavily bandaged.
Kanter had watched on TV with his father in Turkey as Lillard buried the shot that buried the Rockets.
"I was like, 'Wow, this is special,'" Kanter said. "Now I'm here and I'm his teammate and I witnessed that.
"I've never seen anything like it. I've played with some amazing players, but 'Dame' is definitely No. 1."
Lillard's folk hero status in Rip City rose to even greater heights after one of the more extraordinary athletic performances witnessed in these parts.
His Paul Bunyan-sized back carried the Blazers on a night when his teammates struggled for the longest time to give him help on offense.
Lillard scored 19 points, the rest of the Blazers 10 as the Thunder jumped out to a 37-29 lead after one quarter.
He had 34 points, his teammates a collective 27, as Portland assumed a 61-60 halftime edge.
A foul-plagued CJ McCollum came to the party late, scoring 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter.
Moe Harkless also put up a 10-spot in the final period, sinking four straight critical free throws down the stretch after going 1 for 6 at the line to that point.
But really, this was Dame's night. It was "Lillard Time" for 45-plus minutes, a spectacle to witness in wonderment.
"Probably the best performance I've seen in person," Stotts said. "I've seen 50-point games, but the way he carried the team in the first half with CJ in foul trouble ... the magnitude of the last shot ... it was quite a performance.
"You don't win a game with one guy, but he certainly was special tonight."
Lillard was willing to christen this one as mantle-worthy, too.
"I've played a lot of games," he said, "but that's probably the best, just because it was a close-out game."
It was the most improbable victory for the Blazers, who were dead and all but buried, trailing 105-90 with 7:45 remaining.
The Thunder, who played superbly to that point, suddenly began to have trouble finding the basket.
And then it came down to Russell Westbrook missing a driving layup with 18 seconds to go and the score tied at 115-115.
Al-Farouq Aminu rebounded and found Lillard, who took the ball up the court, guarded by Paul George.
As the clock ticked toward zero, it became apparent what would unfold.
"I knew it was going up," OKC coach Billy Donovan said. "I was watching the clock. If he ended up driving past Paul, we were going to have to help. When it was like 2 1/2 seconds (left), I thought, 'He's shooting this. He doesn't have time to shoot anything else.'"
The Blazers didn't need a 3, but Lillard felt that was his best option.
"I didn't want to put it in the referee's hand, where there was contact and (the Thunder) get away with it, or I end up taking a tougher shot," he said. "I was standing there looking at the rim and it was like, 'This is a comfortable range. ... I'm going to shoot it.'
"(George) was a little bit off of me, and there was enough space for me to just raise up and shoot it. I let it fly — it was shoot the ball high in the air to give it a chance, and that's what I did. When it left my hands, it felt good."
"It was an unbelievable shot," Donovan said.
"When the shot left his hand," Kanter said, "I was like, 'That's going in,' because we all believe in him."
"I knew he was going to shoot it," McCollum said. "I didn't know he was going to raise up from 40. I was like, 'He's a bad mother.'"
George had a different take.
"That's a bad shot," he said. "I don't care what anybody says, that's a bad shot. But he made it. That story will be told, that it was a bad shot, and you live with that."
George will take some criticism for his appraisal, but it has merit. A 37-foot rainbow, with the game, and the series, on the line?
"I didn't mind it," Stotts said. "It was a tie score. George and Westbrook both had five fouls, and we had momentum. If it went to overtime, I liked our chances."
Besides, it was Lillard, on a very good night.
"He's special — in a class of his own," Stotts said. "If Steph Curry does that, people don't think much of it. 'Dame' has had a special year. He is in a category of all these guys he doesn't get as much acknowledgement for, but he has been doing it. He has carried our team this year. He is who he is, and I'm thankful for it."
George paid homage to his rival superstar.
"He just made big shots," he said. "I tip my hat off to the shots he made. Contested. Some 35-plus feet out. Tough shots. It was his night. He felt it, and he knocked them down."
Facing elimination, the Thunder came out with everything they had Tuesday night. George scored 36 points on 14-for-20 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds. Westbrook put up a 29-point, 14-assist, 11-rebound triple-double. The Thunder rallied from a nine-point third-quarter deficit with a 30-6 run to lead by 15, putting the Moda denizens on high anxiety.
"They threw a haymaker, landed a couple of them," McCollum said. "But we bounced back in the fourth."
In the closing moments, the Blazers got an emotional lift from an unexpected source.
Center Jusuf Nurkic — out for the playoffs with a broken leg — appeared at the Blazers' bench, surprising his teammates. When Nurkic was shown on the Jumbotron, fans stood and cheered so loudly, the place shook.
Stotts' said Nurkic's plus-minus rating was plus-11.
"We were down eight when he showed up," the coach said with a smile. "You felt it in the building when they showed him on the big screen. No one knew he was going to show up. We fed off that. There was a little good karma there."
"When we saw him walking — even on crutches — it was so much motivation," Kanter said. "In the locker room, it was an amazing moment to see him again. He's not playing, but he gives us so much positive energy."
Kanter hurt his shoulder in the first quarter, bumping into former teammate Steven Adams. He said he "got an injection" at halftime, which allowed him to finish the game on the court while contributing an important 13 points and 13 rebounds in 32 minutes.
Does Kanter feel he'll be able to play in the next series?
"Yes, I'll try to play through it," he said, then correcting himself: "I'll definitely play through it."
The Blazers will have a few days to rest, relax and recover before facing the winner of the Denver-San Antonio series.
Lillard, who played all but the first 2:44 of the fourth quarter of Game 5, can use the rest.
"The whole series, he did an amazing job," Kanter said. "He stayed calm. That's what the great leaders do. He made himself better, and he made everyone around him better."
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