Basketball should always be about the spectacle. Too often these days NBA commentators and fans descend into furtive debates about advanced analytics and statistics that reduce the game to a series of intellectualised metrics.
For me it is about those electric moments when skill and opportunity combine to create greatness. They are where you find the soul of the game, giving meaning to the “ball is life” mantra.
In the first round of last year’s play-offs against Oklahoma City Thunder, the Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard gifted his fans a performance they will never forget.
Having been easily swept aside in their two previous post-season appearances, Portland entered the best-of-seven series with something to prove. The early games were chippy and bruising, with antagonism between Lillard and his rival point guard Russell Westbrook increasing the tension. Grinding out a 3-1 series lead, Portland could seal victory at home in game five. They looked towards Lillard to get them over the hump.
He had form. In 2014 – only his second year in the NBA – Lillard hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to clinch a play-off series against Houston, lifting Portland into the second round for the first time since 2000. It was a mind-bending clutch moment that heralded Lillard’s emergence as an elite player.
In 2019 Portland started game five cold as Oklahoma raced to a 10-point lead. Early foul trouble for shooting guard CJ McCollum meant Lillard was forced to carry more of the scoring load as Blazers struggled to claw back the advantage. He made tough shot after tough shot, duelling with Westbrook and Paul George to leave the game evenly poised by the end of the third quarter.
The Thunder again surged in the fourth to build a seemingly unassailable 15-point lead with 7min 45sec left. It would be a dogfight for Portland to stay in the game, let alone win it.
Entering the final two minutes Portland were six points down. A silky McCollum floater and two Maurice Harkless free throws got them to within touching distance. After a steal McCollum drained a jump shot to level at 113-113 with 59 seconds to go. George responded, before Lillard drove to the rim to make it 115-115 with 33 seconds left.
Westbrook forced up a shot that he missed. Portland possession put the ball back into Lillard’s hands. He advanced past the halfway line and put on the brakes, staring down George in front of him. The clock clicked down. Eight, seven, six, five. What was he going to do? Wait. He couldn’t, could he?
With two seconds left Lillard pulled up to shoot, 37 feet from the basket, standing so deep he was virtually on the mid-court logo. The ball hung in the air as a packed Moda Center held its breath. It dropped through the net as time expired and the stadium exploded into pandemonium.
Portland won 115-118 and took the series, Lillard ending the game with 50 points including 10 three-pointers.
Lillard ruthlessly waved goodbye to Oklahoma as he turned on his heel. His placid expression as he was smothered by celebrating teammates became a meme: to him the shot was never in doubt. “That was the last word,” Lillard said.
“A bad shot” is how a hubris-laden George would describe it, offering a counter-narrative for the advanced analytics nerds to mull over. Nice try. The truth is Lillard had buried one of the greatest play-off shots in NBA history, and OKC along with it.
Naysayers will argue Lillard’s shot was soon eclipsed by Kawhi Leonard’s own buzzer beater for Toronto against the 76ers, his effort inexplicably going in after four bounces on the rim. Both plays will be on highlights reels forever. The difference though is that while Leonard’s shot was miraculous, Lillard’s was sublime skill. It is simply indelible.
To do it once in your career is incredible but to do it twice defies hyperbole. For those who still need convincing, there is one comparison that should resonate. The only other player in NBA history to have made two play-off-series-winning buzzer beaters? Michael Jordan.