With how lopsided many of these first-round NBA playoff series have been, it would have been understandable to want the Thunder-Blazers matchup to continue beyond Tuesday, both because of its star power and because of the sheer back-and-forth competitiveness it displayed.
But if the series had to end quickly, at least it went out with a bang: with Damian Lillard finishing not only with 50 points, but also with one of the greatest, most cold-blooded buzzer-beaters in NBA history — perhaps the most difficult one to ever end a playoff series, all things considered.
This wasn’t Lillard’s first game-winner to end a series. He hit a more conventional one, coming off a screen for a lightning-quick catch-and-shoot opportunity, to knock out the Houston Rockets in 2014.
But with Tuesday’s dagger, the Portland star finished off former MVP Russell Westbrook and his Oklahoma City club, literally waving goodbye to the visiting Thunder after nailing a shot just to the right of the Blazers’ half-court logo, a full 37 feet away from the basket. A shot from that distance would be difficult enough to knock down wide-open, let alone with an All-NBA defender like 6-foot-9 Paul George contesting it.
“That’s a bad shot, I don’t care what anybody says. That’s a bad shot,” a defiant George told reporters after Oklahoma City fell, 118-115, putting an end to the five-game gentleman’s sweep.
But in a way, that’s what made it such a spectacular one. Lillard wanted to take that shot. He had more than 10 seconds to make something else happen — to drive to the hoop for a closer look, or to potentially call a teammate over for a screen to get more space — and chose not to. Instead, he opted to let the clock run down to the final two seconds, took a side-step to his right and let it fly from 37. Ballgame.
And despite George’s proclamation, that Lillard’s game-winner was a “bad shot” that went down anyway, consider this: Lillard had been doing stuff like this all series long. In fact, the buzzer-beater made Lillard an unthinkable 9-of-15 for the series from 30 feet and beyond, according to Second Spectrum. It’s part of the reason Lillard has been the most valuable player this postseason thus far.
We’ve been critical of the Blazers and their roster construction at times in the past. A team built mostly around Lillard and CJ McCollum seems flawed, both because of the tough shots the guards rely on (especially when playing longer-wing defenders like Jrue Holiday last year) and because of the duo’s shortcomings on D. There have been some redeeming qualities present in their teamwide defense — the Blazers have been elite for years at limiting quality looks on that end of the floor. Still, the club’s calculus figured to get a lot tougher without starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who somehow had avoided serious injury in the past but then succumbed to a season-ending one just weeks before the playoffs began. And it didn’t help that the club entered this postseason having lost 10 playoff games in a row.
Yet if Lillard can play anywhere close to this level going forward, it requires at least a brief reevaluation of everything. He had 34 points in the first half alone on Tuesday and hit three of his four attempts from 30-plus feet, including the one that sent the Thunder packing.
Lillard’s ability to sink those shots — paired with Oklahoma City’s surprise that he’d even have the audacity to try them in some cases — was one of the key reasons Portland ran away with the series 4-1. The Thunder allowed him too much cushion, largely because defenders haven’t adjusted to the realization that Lillard, with nearly limitless range on his off-dribble jumpers, has arguably become the closest thing we have to Golden State’s Stephen Curry.
Curry, Lillard and Atlanta rookie Trae Young were the only three players in the NBA to take more than 40 3-point attempts from 30 feet and beyond this past regular season, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s Play Index. Curry shot an impressive 31.1 percent, while Lillard hit 30.6 percent of his tries from that distance. (Young, promisingly, made 34.6 percent of his.)
After the game, Lillard told reporters that his trainer, Phil Beckner, had him work on longer-than-usual 3-point attempts — closer to half-court — while working out in Oklahoma City earlier in the series. “I’m telling you, you’re gonna hit one of these,” he recalled Beckner saying.
And unfortunately for the Thunder, that one — which might have been a bad shot for just about anybody other than Lillard — was enough to end their season in the most brutal way possible.