Lillard continues to sizzle on a very tough day
It takes something mighty large to divert attention from the greatest individual performance over three games in the history of the Trail Blazers' franchise.
It doesn't get much bigger than the colossus of Kobe Bryant's death in the helicopter crash that also killed his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
With the whirlwind of reaction inside Moda Center and out, it was hard to concentrate on the Blazers' 139-129 victory over Indiana on Sunday night.
Overshadowed in the tragic loss of a basketball legend was the spectacular play of Damian Lillard, an occurrence that has continued through a historical three-game stretch.
The Blazers' meal ticket — and dead-solid lock to be NBA Western Conference Player of the Week — bombed in 50 points in 38 minutes against an Indiana team that was on the fifth leg of a five-game road trip.
The weary Pacers (30-17) couldn't slow down Lillard, who sank 14 of 23 shots from the field, 8 of 12 from 3-point range and 14 of 16 free throws. He also had 13 assists, six rebounds and only one turnover in a showing suitable for framing for the Blazers (20-27).
"We tried everything on him," veteran Indiana assistant coach Dan Burke said. "Different matchups, traps, let someone else beat you, and he's still scoring.
"He has a look about him like a resolve right now that he's going to get this team back up above .500. He is putting them on his shoulders. It was pretty impressive. I wish I'd been up in the stands with a beer watching it instead of from our bench."
Indiana was without starting point guard Malcolm Bragdon (concussion), who likely would have defended Lillard, and center Myles Turner (ankle), who could have helped protect drives to the basket. The Pacers' best player, shooting guard Victor Oladipo, returns Wednesday after having missed the entire season due to a broken leg.
But Lillard has been playing of late like someone not to be denied, averaging 52.7 points in three games over the last six days. The 6-3 point guard scored a franchise-record 61 points in a 129-124 overtime win over Golden State on Monday and followed that with 47 points in a 133-125 loss to Dallas on Thursday. He has become the first player in Blazers history score 40-plus points in three straight games, and the first to score 50 or more three times in a season.
In the last three games, Lillard is shooting .534 from the field (47 for 87), a sizzling .575 from 3-point range (27 for 47) and .943 from the foul line (37 for 39). He also averaged 9.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds with eight turnovers in 125 minutes. He joined Stephen Curry as the only NBA player to make eight-plus 3-pointers in three straight games.
Lillard has scored 30 or more points in five consecutive games, matching Geoff Petrie's franchise record.
"That kid is an unbelievable player," Indiana coach Nate McMillan said, "and he certainly should be an All-Star."
Lillard's fifth All-Star nomination will come Thursday, when the reserves are announced. He is padding his resume at just the right time with some of the best production of his eight-year career.
Before the game, Lillard told Blazers sideline reporter Brooke Olzendam, "I don't know how we're supposed to play this game tonight."
Then he went out and put a C-note on a team headed for the Eastern Conference playoffs, earning "MVP!" chants as he toed the line near game's end.
Lillard got help with the return of his backcourt mate, CJ McCollum, who looked sharp after a three-game absence due to a sprained ankle, scoring 28 points and sinking 6 of 9 3-point attempts.
Portland was 20 for 35 (.571) from beyond the arc, the ninth time in NBA history a team has hit 20 or more 3's in back-to-back games.
Basketball wasn't an easy game to play, though, on such a sad day in the NBA.
It was particularly difficult for the Blazers who knew Bryant best.
Veteran forward Trevor Ariza was Bryant's teammate on the Lakers for a season and a half in the late 2000s. He was too distraught to speak to the media before or after the game.
Carmelo Anthony counted Bryant as a good friend. The two were teammates on U.S. Olympic teams that won gold in 2008 and '12. Anthony struggled with his emotions in Sunday's game, and sat aside his locker with a towel over his head for several minutes before meeting with reporters afterward.
"That was probably the hardest game I ever had to play," said Anthony, fighting back tears. "Just ... I don't know ... whoo. It was tough.
"Our relationship was deeper than basketball. It was family; it was friendship. Basketball was the last piece of connective tissue between us two."
Anthony didn't give serious thought to sitting out the game, though.
"I'm a professional," he said. "It's my job. I'm sure he'd have wanted me to play."
But Anthony said his mind wandered, with thoughts of Bryant, throughout Sunday's game.
"I had to pull myself back in, check back in emotionally, because I wasn't there today," he said.
Anthony said he learned of Bryant's death in a phone call from his wife, La La.
"At that point, everything went numb, dark," he said. "Basketball was the furthest thing from my mind today."
Anthony said he had gone to dinner with Bryant recently in New York and had spoken to him a couple of days ago, with Bryant expressing interest in attending the Blazers-Lakers game at Staples Center on Friday.
"I really feel for 'Melo' and Trevor, the relationship they had with Kobe," McCollum said. "I knew Kobe. We had a decent relationship to where we'd talk when we'd see each other. I'm thankful I was able to express the impact he had on my life and my basketball, my approach.
"My whole family, we were all Kobe fans. He was the guy I was afraid to meet — him and Michael Jordan. I knew LeBron (James). I got to sit down and talk with him at the ESPYs a few years ago. I tried to pick his brain when I could. He gave a quote to Slam Magazine about me. I thought that was cool. It's a really sad time for the world to have to mourn his loss, a tragic loss that caught people off guard. It's devastating."
Lillard really got to know Bryant during the 2014 All-Star Game in New Orleans. They were on the West team together, though Bryant was injured and didn't play.
"I didn't play much (nine minutes), and I sat next to him on the bench pretty much the whole game," Lillard said. "He was dropping so much knowledge to me. Comforting me, saying, 'When you get out there, just shoot. You belong out there. You could have been here last year.'
"His words meant so much to me. After that game, he said to keep in touch. I was nervous to reach out to him, but I did. He always got back to me and had encouraging things to say, honest things to say. We developed a friendship from there. I didn't take my access for granted, but I wish I'd have taken advantage of it more."
Lillard said he morphed from a fan of Bryant's while growing up to being an NBA peer and to a friend.
"It's just sad, man," he said. "Losing his daughter (Gianna) as well. It's the last thing in the world you think you're going to wake up and see. It's a huge loss for the world, a huge loss for the game of basketball, but most importantly, for his family.
"We're all losing the great Kobe Bean Bryant. His impact on the game is going to be missed. It can't be replaced. There's definitely going to be a hole in this game going forward."
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