Through the first 21 minutes of Thursday night's late TNT game, the shorthanded New York Knicks — playing without their highest-priced player (Amar'e Stoudemire, out for the next six weeks following right knee debridement surgery), their leading scorer (Carmelo Anthony, back in New York having his troublesome right knee drained of fluid) and arguably their most important player (Tyson Chandler, who sat Thursday after bruising his left knee in a Wednesday night loss to the Denver Nuggets) — hung with the Portland Trail Blazers, using contributions from surprising sources (20 points, 11 rebounds and five assists from the trio of Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas), ball security (13 assists and just three turnovers) and unsustainably hot shooting (21 of 32, 63.6 percent from the floor) to hold a 10-point lead with less than three minutes remaining before halftime.
But old-man magic can only last so long, especially as the pace picks up; when the game gets fast, youth will be served. And when you're talking about Portland and you're talking about youth, you're talking about Damian Lillard, who not only assisted on three buckets in the closing minutes as the Blazers made a run, but also pulled off a brilliant defense-into-offense play with under 20 seconds remaining and the Knicks falling apart:
Lillard's good pick-off (not to be confused with the bad pick that started the game) and how'd-he-do-that? reverse layup capped a 13-0 Blazers run that completely tilted the game, taking the wind out of New York's sails and putting the younger, fresher and (amazingly, considering their bench) deeper Blazers in control of matters, sending the Knicks into halftime reeling and trailing.
New York wasn't able to regain its early-game form after intermission, thanks in large part to Portland switching up its strategy on pick-and-roll coverage. After watching guards Raymond Felton (who, as we all expected, wasn't too popular in his return to Portland) and Jason Kidd carve up the Portland D to feed diving bigs Martin and Camby for layups, Blazers coach Terry Stotts had his big men aggressively hedge on ball screens, trap to prevent dribble penetration by Knick ball-handlers and get their hands in the passing lanes, all but choking off Knick entry to the lane and forcing a slew of contested midrange and long-distance shots. The result? The Knicks went 5 for 27 in the third quarter, scoring just 14 points in the frame; from there, it was all over but the shoutin'.
And there was some shoutin', as J.R. Smith got hot to start the fourth, scoring 11 of his game-high 33 points in a 2 1/2-minute stretch to chop a 16-point Portland lead down to four at the 7:54 mark. But as we've seen time and again during his rookie season — and especially when he gets a shot at the nationally televised spotlight — Lillard showed uncommon poise for a rookie point guard. The Weber State product made a steal on the Knicks' next possession that led to a LaMarcus Aldridge layup, then drained a 3-pointer that put Portland back up by nine and teamed up with swingman Nicolas Batum for a pair of triples that extended the lead to 17, knocking the Knicks out cold with 4 1/2 minutes left. After that, it was just a matter of accounting; the final balance sheet read Portland 105, New York 90.
Lillard finished with a team-high 26 points on 11 for 18 shooting to go with 10 assists and just one turnover in 40-plus minutes on the floor, which is the kind of line that's becoming more common for him — he's scored 20 or more points, dished seven or more dimes and made at least 50 percent of his shots in four of his last six games, and in one of the others, he missed those marks by one field-goal attempt. He's averaging 24.6 points and seven assists per game in March on 54.2 percent shooting from the field, a 43.2 percent mark from 3-point range and 85.2 percent accuracy from the stripe as the Blazers continue their fight to stay within hailing distance of the West's eighth seed — the combination of their win and the Dallas Mavericks' one-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night tied the two teams at 30-34, 2 1/2 games behind the ninth-seeded (but freefalling) Utah Jazz and three games back of the No. 8 Los Angeles Lakers.
It's still very unlikely that Portland will be able to leapfrog Dallas, Utah and L.A. to get into the final eight — John Hollinger's playoff odds give them a 6.2 percent chance of making the postseason — and it's an awful tall task to ask Lillard, Aldridge and Batum to produce enough young-man magic to push Portland past the pack. But as long as he continues his recent run of form, they're not dead yet, and they remain a pretty darn fun watch.
If the clip above isn't rocking for you, feel free to check out the rip, run and reverse elsewhere, thanks to our friends at the NBA.