Led by bubble MVP Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers fought valiantly in the restart and sealed the No. 8 seed by defeating Memphis 126-122 on Saturday. Prior to the team’s postseason bout with the Los Angeles Lakers, Anthony told Yahoo Sports who’s the best player he’s ever played with on an NBA team.
“Dame’s at the top for me,” Anthony told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve never played with someone who lifted his team on the court with his play and as a leader. He genuinely cares for his teammates. What he’s been able to do is amazing. He’s the top guy I’ve played with.”
Anthony also played two seasons in Denver with Hall of Fame guard Allen Iverson.
“AI was on the tail end [of his career] at that point [in Denver],” Anthony told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve played with some great players, but the way Dame elevates his game and others, he’s at the top.”
That sentiment about Lillard is shared throughout the locker room and it’s one of the main reasons why the franchise has been able to absorb so many early-season disappointments to find its way into the playoffs.
“If I’m showing frustration, it might spread to the team,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “My job is to keep everyone motivated and encouraged so that we can play to the best of our abilities. There are a lot of things that you can’t control during a season, but we can control how hard we work.”
In November, the Trail Blazers needed a jolt physically, mentally and spiritually. After 12 games, the franchise was facing a dire strait with Jusuf Nurkic (leg) and Zach Collins (shoulder) sidelined for an extended time. Rodney Hood (Achilles) would be lost for the year a month later.
With limited options to acquire talent capable of making a substantial impact, Neil Olshey, the president of basketball operations, swung for the fences on Nov. 14 and signed Anthony, who had been out of basketball for nearly 11 months.
Skeptics had a field day. Much of Anthony’s basketball character had been tarnished due to his last two stops in Oklahoma City and Houston. Lillard wanted this new relationship to work not only for the team’s sake, but for Anthony to find peace and to silence the critics who proclaimed he was washed.
Two weeks into Anthony’s tenure with the Trail Blazers, Lillard invited Anthony to his family’s house for Thanksgiving. Anthony, new to the city, didn’t have any family in town. He decided to take Lillard up on the offer.
A Lillard family gathering can approach upward of 75 people depending on the location.
The menu featured four turkeys, three smoked hams, potato salad, green beans, yams, dressing, cranberry sauce, gumbo, cornbread, greens, mac and cheese, Brussels sprout, peach cobbler, red velvet cake, sweet potato pie and Chef B (Brandon Johnson), Lillard’s cousin who died three months ago, brought his homemade ice cream.
“Melo was real chill, man,” Oscar Johnson, Lillard’s uncle, told Yahoo Sports. “Dame introduced him to the family and Melo mingled around and took some pictures, but he was just chill. He doesn't eat pork, but he ate everything else. You can tell he enjoyed himself. That was Dame’s way of embracing him into the family and into the Trail Blazer family.”
If you look at how Anthony is fitting in now, it’s as if he’s always played in Terry Stotts’ system. Time and time again in the Orlando bubble, he has hit dagger 3-pointers late in games and most of the time it came off a Lillard pass.
That’s what transpired with 25 seconds remaining in the play-in game with the Trail Blazers up three. Lillard penetrated past Grayson Allen and drew in three more defenders before finding Anthony in the corner.
The forward, without hesitating, let it fly and it rattled in and would be the difference-maker in securing the 126-120 victory. The trust Lillard has in his teammates is immense.
“I wanted Melo to feel comfortable when he got here. I needed him. We needed him and I think we needed each other,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “I wanted him to get to know me and what I’m about and I wanted to get to know him.”
Game 1 of Portland’s series against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and company begins on Tuesday. A few things are for sure: Lillard and the Trail Blazers are arguably the most jelled team in the bubble and they aren’t just happy to be here.
“We’re here to compete for a championship,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “That was the goal from Day 1 and that hasn’t changed. I’m looking forward to the challenge and I trust my guys are too.”
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