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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Trail Blazers stay in playoff hunt, but Mr. 61 will need more help

PMG FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Damian Lillard called it 'one of the best' games of his career -- his 61-point masterpiece in an overtime victory Monday over Golden State. Damian Lillard's shoulders have always been strong during his eight seasons with the Trail Blazers.

They may never have been more powerful than they were Monday night at Moda Center, however, as he carried Portland to a 129-124 overtime victory over Golden State.

Lillard broke the franchise single-game record of 60 points he set earlier this season, calmly swishing a pair of free throws with 4.6 seconds remaining in the extra session to get to 61.

Portland's All-Star point guard was the ringleader of everything good on a night when none of his teammates had much going at the offensive end. In order to continue their playoff hopes, the Blazers (19-26) couldn't afford to drop one at home against the Warriors (10-35), who have lost 11 of their last 12 and own the worst record in the NBA.

"It's one of the best (games) of my career, one of my better performances in a game we needed to win," Lillard said.

"Lillard Time" lasted the full 45 minutes he spent on the court. His masterpiece included a franchise-record 11 3-pointers out of 20 attempts, the most 3's ever made against Golden State. He took a career-high 37 shots from the field, making 17.

Lillard also matched a franchise mark by finishing 16 for 16 from the free-throw line. He joined Elgin Baylor (63 points, 1961) and Wilt Chamberlain (62 points, 1966) as the only players to score 60 points in a game against the Warriors. Lillard also became the sixth player in NBA history to record multiple 60-point games and the first to score 60 with double-digit 3-pointers.

The Blazers' meal ticket also found time to come up with 10 rebounds and seven assists, falling three assists short of his first career triple-double and what would have been one of the more remarkable triple-doubles in NBA history.

"You run out of adjectives for Damian's performance," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "The way he carried the team, not just on the court but in the huddles at timeouts, and at halftime … his leadership was great. He's an amazing player."

Center Hassan Whiteside used the same adjective to describe his teammate's play.

"'Dame' played amazing," Whiteside said. "I told him to keep shooting, even when he missed."

Whiteside mentioned the importance of Lillard's on-court demeanor.

"He always is a calm guy, regardless of what happens," said Whiteside, who finished with 17 points, 21 rebounds and six blocked shots in 44 minutes. "He never tries to show you up on the court, never tries to make his teammates look bad. He's a great guy, man."

Veteran Carmelo Anthony was asked what memory he'll take from Monday's game.

"We won, and it was in a game we had to have," said Anthony, who contributed 14 and nine rebounds in his 43 minutes. "It was a special night. I'm just glad I could be a part of that."

At 29, Lillard is at the height of his prowess as an NBA player. He is on pace for career highs in scoring (27.9 points per game), assists (7.6) and field-goal percentage (.446). In this trying, injury-plagued season for the Blazers, Lillard has kept his fighting spirit, insisting the Blazers will make the playoffs and be a factor once they get there. He won't let his teammates give in.

"When you have a leader of the team going out there putting forth the effort night in and night out and being very consistent on and off the court, guys follow," Anthony said. "That's the case right now."

Stotts mentioned the Blazers' 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, when they were flailing at midseason but Lillard willed them to the playoffs.

"We were down, and he carried us both years the second half of the season," the Blazer coach said. "He doesn't quit. He never thinks he's out of the game, never thinks we're out of a season. He always thinks we have a chance to win. That's what motivates him."

Monday's matchup between the Blazers and Warriors could have been sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield. Golden State, minus the likes of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, was down to eight available players. Portland, missing such as CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood, had nine players dressed.

The Warriors led much of the way, and by as many as 12 points in the third quarter. Lillard wouldn't let the Blazers lose, even on a night when second-year guards Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons combined to miss 17 of 19 3-point attempts. Aside from Lillard, the Blazers were 3 for 24 from beyond the arc. Lillard scored 21 points in the first half, 33 points in the second half and seven in overtime.

"It's crazy,' Trent said. "In the moment, you see him making all these spectacular plays, 3 after 3, layup after layup ... it's a beautiful thing to watch."

Lillard's step-back 3 with 14.9 seconds left in regulation forced the extra session. When he stepped to the foul line to ice the game with Portland ahead 127-124, the franchise scoring mark was his if he made both attempts.

"Yeah, I knew," he admitted. "I knew I had 59 with eight seconds left, so I was like, 'I'm probably going to sit at 59.' Then (Golden State's Damion Lee) bumped me and I was like, 'I'm going down. They're going to have to blow this whistle, and I'm getting these two free throws.'"

The referees did, and Lillard did. Rembrandt couldn't have finished it better.

"A great performance," Lillard self-evaluated. "I'm excited about it. I'm happy about it, but I wish it counted for three wins instead of one.

"We needed a win tonight. It would have been a tough one to give up. We have a good home stretch of games, a good opportunity to get some wins against some tough teams on our home floor. On to the next one now."

That's 7:30 p.m. Thursday against the Dallas Mavericks, with whom the Blazers have split this season, winning 121-119 on Oct. 27 and losing 120-112 last Friday, both in Dallas. The Mavericks were 27-15 and in fifth place in the Western Conference heading into a Tuesday matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers.

It's possible McCollum (ankle) will return to action, but the Blazers could be minus Simons, who turned an ankle in the third quarter Monday and then aggravated it late in the game. Whiteside was hurting afterward, too, from a solar-plexus shot he took in the closing minute.

"I'm in pain right now, but I got to do this interview," he said through a smile. "The first 10 seconds, I saw my life flash in front of my eyes."

After Dallas, Portland plays host to playoff teams Indiana and Houston. With their record, the Blazers know their margin of error is slim. They need to start winning some games against contenders.

"The difference is the feeling of desperation," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said of a team with a losing record. "When you're winning and you're cruising along, you're more comfortable, which can lead to a letdown. You're more guarded against feeling complacent.

"When you're losing, you feel desperate, and that can make you tighten up. It's a different type of feeling."

The Blazers looked a little tight Monday night, except for their leader. In the end, when Lillard was at the foul line at game's end, the Moda Center denizens trotted out a chant we haven't heard for a while: "MVP! MVP!"

Lillard was that and more against the Warriors. Portland could use more of it the rest of the way. But he'll need more help than he got Monday night if the Blazers are to make it to the postseason.

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