Damian Lillard is the NBA's fringe MVP candidate on the league's fringe contender

Damian Lillard is forever seeking respect. When he was left off the All-Star team each of his previous two seasons, he let us know about it. When he was selected to the 2015 All-Star Game as an injury replacement, he let us know about it. And when Russell Westbrook took a shot at Lillard upon making this year’s All-Star roster, he let us know about it. This is the fire that fuels the Portland Trail Blazer.

Left off the All-NBA roster last season, Lillard is still lined up outside the NBA’s most exclusive club — universally accepted superstars LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Anthony Davis — but he’s pounding on the door louder than ever. He’s the fringe MVP candidate leading the fringe contender, and there he thrives, disrespected just enough to keep that fire roaring.

But Damian Lillard is undeniable now, and never was that more evident than the final frame of Monday’s win over a Los Angeles Lakers team that had won five straight and nine in a row at home.

The fourth quarter has long been Dame Time, but Lillard entered a new continuum in L.A. He checked in with 8:23 remaining. His first basket of the period came roughly a minute later, and he proceeded to score 19 points over the next 5:57, including 15 straight with less than five minutes left on the clock.

Lillard doesn’t just paint by numbers. His four 3-pointers on four consecutive possessions in a span of 102 seconds was a master class in clutch artistry. Two of the 3’s came from serious distance, and when all viewed together, they turned a 97-91 deficit into a 103-99 lead the Blazers never fully relinquished.

“Damian Lillard is special,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said afterwards. “If it’s not obvious, I’ll say it.”

“I don’t marvel at a lot of things,” added teammate Shabazz Napier, via NBC Sports Northwest. “A lot of things don’t get to me. But today was … today was spectacular. The one he did in Phoenix [another 19 fourth-quarter points], I wasn’t so hyped. But today, I was like: Wow. In the game, I was like: Wow.”

“That’s Big Baller Brand,” said Nurkic, needling Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, who was tasked with guarding Lillard down the stretch, and reminding us all that Ball received more All-Star fan votes than Lillard.

Added Lillard, via ESPN:

“It will probably be a while before I miss, that is what I am [thinking]. Usually when I get on the road, I feel like every shot is going in. There have been times when it came down to a big shot, where I have been missing; but I think just knowing that I have taken these shots so many times, not only in games but in workouts, that I have been preparing myself.

“I expect things for myself. Regardless of how the game is going, I am always going to feel like when the time comes, I can make it happen.”

Make it happen, he did. Lillard finished with 39 points, six assists and five rebounds, leading the Blazers to their seventh straight win — a stretch that has pushed Portland from the crowded Western Conference‘s seventh seed to third place, a game up on New Orleans, San Antonio and Minnesota.

“He knows that’s going to happen,” Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool told NBC Sports Washington after the Lakers game. “What he just did, that’s not by mistake. Mentally, he’s already seen it. He’s prepared, he’s put in the work, and that’s why it’s not a surprise to him.

“He already feels it, he already knows it,” Vanterpool said. “What he did tonight is more like him finishing a movie he has already seen in his mind.”

We’ve seen this movie now so many times that we forget we’re supposed to be surprised by the ending. Since dropping 50 points on Sacramento 10 games ago, Lillard is averaging a league-high 33.5 points — more than Davis during a similarly ridiculous stretch that’s vaulted him into the MVP conversation — including an NBA-best 8.9 fourth-quarter points per game on 62 percent true shooting.

That included a 44-point, eight-assist effort in Portland’s first win over Golden State in 12 tries. Over their next 15 games, the Blazers play every legitimate contender but Toronto — Golden State again, Houston twice, Oklahoma City (?), Cleveland and Boston — and that stretch could move Lillard and Portland from the line into the club as an MVP candidate and championship challenger, respectively.

Blazers star Damian Lillard drives to the basket on his way to 39 points against the Lakers. (Getty Images)
Blazers star Damian Lillard drives to the basket on his way to 39 points against the Lakers. (Getty Images)

During Lillard’s recent explosion, Jusuf Nurkic has looked like the bona fide third option he was behind C.J. McCollum in last season’s six-week stretch. Over the past month, Nurkic is averaging a double-double on better than 50 percent shooting, with two assists and two blocks/steals a game, and lineups featuring those three have outscored opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions.

It is that combination that makes the Blazers so scary, especially if the backcourt gets hot together. The fact that Portland’s latest surge has coincided with a shooting slump for McCollum, one of the league’s most efficient scorers for three years running now, makes them all the more frightening.

The Blazers owned a top-10 offense when they made their playoff pushes the previous four years, but this season it’s their seventh-ranked defense that’s carried the load. The offense has moved back into the top 10 since New Year’s, while the defense has slipped, but if Portland ever gets both sides of the ball working in concert, they’ve got the firepower to push Golden State or Houston late into a series.

And if we learned anything in L.A. on Monday, you don’t ever want to see Lillard when it’s getting late.

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!