PORTLAND — After 14 years, the wait is finally over.
Damian Lillard hit a game-winning three-pointer as time expired to push the Trail Blazers past the Rockets 99-98 in Game 6 of the Western Conference playoffs.
“I mean, I got a pretty good look,” said Lillard, who finished the game with 25 points on 8 of 14 shooting from the field and 6 of 10 shooting from three. “Mo and Wes did a great job of trying to screen and I was able to break free and I got my feet squared up and it felt real good leaving my hands. Once I saw it on line, I said that’s got a chance. It went in, but it did feel good when it left my hands.”
“I’ve been here so long, I definitely know this city has been waiting for this type of moment, this night, for a long time,” said LaMarcus Aldridge. “I think they’re probably still cheering in their cars and at their houses. This city loves basketball and to give them this type of series and give them a shot like that to end it, they love it. They’ve been behind us the whole season. They believe in us.”
With less than a second to play, it looked as though the series was going to head back to Houston for a Game 7. And as exciting as the series has been, no Trail Blazer, let alone their fans, were interested in enduring a win-or-go-home Game 7 on the Rockets home court. But that looked like the direction the series was headed after the Rockets took a 98-96 lead off a Chandler Parsons putback with 0.9 seconds to play.
“I think I can speak for our entire team – when Chandler Parsons made that layup with 0.9 seconds, everybody was like ‘Man, we have to go back to Houston,'” said Lillard. “I told LA the first thin I did after he made it was look to the other end at the clock to see how much time was left. I knew we would get a shot off. I didn’t know what the quality would be of the shot, but we got as good of a look as we was going to get.”
Portland called a timeout to advance the ball, though the Rockets would call a timeout of their own after assessing Portland’s formation. It wouldn’t help though, as no amount of scouting, preparation and scheming was going to keep the Trail Blazers, a team that has shown themselves to be supremely confident in their ability to overcome any obstacle, no matter how formidable, during the court of the first-round series.
As soon as the officials blew the whistle to start play, Lillard charged hard from the other side of the court to collect the inbounds pass from Nicolas Batum. Despite Lillard’s reputation as one of the most clutch shooters in the NBA, Rockets forward Chandler Parsons, who was responsible for checking Lillard, was slow to pursue. Lillard came open while curling toward Batum, clapping his hands in an effort to get the point across that, even though Aldridge was the first option, he would was ready to take the shot.
“It was either LA or Damian coming up,” said Terry Stotts of what he drew up for the last play of the game. “You try to have two looks. To be honest, I didn’t think Damian would come that open. LA was probably the first look but Dame came wide open. So it was one of the two looks.”
Parsons was able to make up ground as Lillard received the pass from Batum and squared his shoulders to take the shot, but the 6-3 guard from Weber State has shown time and time again in his two NBA seasons that he needs only the slightest peek at the rim to crush opponents dreams in crunch time. Lillard elevated roughly two feet behind the three-point line and got a shot off with roughly 0.4 seconds on the clock that hit nothing but net as time expired, sending the Moda Center into complete hysterics.
“(Lillard) lives for those moments,” said Stotts. It looked good when it left. It’s remarkable. It was a remarkable shot.”
Lillard’s game-winner was reminiscent of Brandon Roy’s game-winner against the Rockets on Nov. 6, 2008, though the stakes this time were far, far higher, prompting at least one Trail Blazer who was on the team at the time of Roy’s winner to declare that Lillard’s game-winner was the new leader in the clubhouse.
“Since I’ve been here, all the respect I have for (Brandon Roy), this is No. 1,” said Batum. “B.Roy moved to No. 2 now. B.Roy’s was a huge shot, but this one, we passed the first round with that shot. We’ve been waiting for that for six years, LA for eight and this team, this city for 14 years. So yeah, that’s going to be No. 1 like, maybe in Blazers history. One of the best shots in Blazers history.”
To be in the position to win the game, the Trail Blazers needed huge fourth quarter contributions from their bigs, primarily Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson.
Lopez scored eight of his 12 points in a four minute stretch in the fourth quarter during a time in which Portland’s offense seemed to grind to a halt. While he couldn’t completely negate Dwight Howard’s 26-point, 11-rebound performance, his timely makes were the only thing keeping the Trail Blazers in the game late in regulation.
“Sometimes, when you’re an offensive threat, you can flip it on like that,” said Lopez in the best deadpan he could muster after such an exciting victory. “My teammates had a lot of faith in me and that will put the ball in the bucket sometimes.”
As for Robinson, who said it was “sweet as cake” eliminating one of the teams that traded him during this rookie season, he played just 16 minutes and logged eight points, three rebounds and a steal but provided a boost of offense and energy by either assisting or scoring Portland’s first three buckets of the fourth quarter.
“It was big for my team,” said Robinson. “What I had to get used to this year was doing the things that were big for my team. So that’s all I try to do is be big for my team. My personal accolades and my personal achievements will come later. I’m two years in. So for right now, I’m on a winning team, on a great team playing behind a legend, so I’m just going to embrace this moment.”
That “legend” Robinson is referring to is Aldridge, who led the way and kept the Trail Blazers afloat with 30 points and 13 rebounds.
“I was definitely trying to take more shots, find my rhythm and try to get us going early,” said Aldridge, who scored 21 points in the first half. “Coach told me that he was going to come to me early and I wanted to get us off to a good start, because I know when I put pressure on the defense, it makes everybody’s job easier.”
Now, the Trail Blazers turn their sights to the next job: playing either the Spurs in San Antonio or the Mavericks in Portland in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals.
“Once the shot went in and I knew the series was over, the crowd was so into the game,” said Lillard. “I think our whole team really wanted to get it done for them, not only ourselves, our group in the locker room but for the crowd because they show up so consistently for us. They were with us. The whole series, they were with us 100 percent. I felt like they deserved to be rewarded.”