Inside the assassin's mindset — and trash talk — of Damian Lillard’s matchup against Russell Westbrook

PORTLAND, Ore. — Damian Lillard invited a few people to his home for dinner on Monday night to watch Game 4 of the first-round series between the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets.

For several minutes, the Portland Trail Blazers’ star guard sat quietly on his sofa, chowing down on fried catfish, red beans and rice, and broccoli. And then suddenly, he spoke: “I’m getting rid of these mother------- tomorrow.”

And Lillard did just that Tuesday night, scoring 50 points on 17-of-33 shooting (10-of-18 on threes) and hitting a series-clinching, 37-foot 3-pointer with no time remaining to beat the Thunder 118-115 and eliminate them in five games.

Lillard had enjoyed competing on the big stage against the Oklahoma City Thunder — especially fellow stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

But along the way, he grew tired of the self-absorbed antics of Westbrook and the Thunder.

Much of the chatter during the series was about how Lillard was destroying the Thunder’s defensive scheme — and most notably, Westbrook. The two even engaged in a war of words on occasion.

It became personal for one of them.

PORTLAND, OREGON - APRIL 23: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers reacts after hitting the game winning shot in Game Five of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center on April 23, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. The Blazers won 118-115.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)   (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard soaks in the moment after his game-winning and series-clinching shot Tuesday night in Portland. (Getty Images)

Dealing with Russell Westbrook

Following successful contested jump shots over Lillard, Westbrook would occasionally trot back on defense making the “rock the baby” gesture.

For Lillard, it was not warranted, but he didn’t view it as crossing the line.

“He was doing that on jump shots,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “That’s not when you’re supposed to rock the baby. You rock the baby after overpowering someone in the post. He had one layup in the post on me. Look it up. I’ll live with his jump shots. He wasn’t rocking no baby on me.”

After Westbrook scores on a player, he often gets animated, shouting and showing up opponents, and this series was no exception.

“I’m not even paying attention to it,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “But when I do see it, that’s cool. He does it every game, so it doesn’t bother me. I don’t celebrate in someone’s face and try to disrespect my opponent. But if a team calls a timeout, I’ll go acknowledge the crowd and celebrate with my teammates as I’m going to the bench. I’m not going to say some wild s---. I think with him, he’s pounding his chest and talking s--- and that’s what gets him going. That’s the difference between us.”

As Lillard sits on his sofa, he’s fixated on how the Rockets are allowing Donovan Mitchell to get loose in the fourth quarter of Utah’s eventual 107-91 win. On one defensive possession, Chris Paul tried to slow the second-year guard down, and that’s when the conversation returned to the Thunder.

Lillard showed a social-media clip of him telling Westbrook, “Stop running from this ass whoopin’,” as Lillard grew weary of Westbrook switching off him, while Lillard continued to be Westbrook’s primary defender.

And what came out of Westbrook’s mouth during a few of his post-basket outbursts was the B-word, something most players wouldn’t dismiss without an altercation.

“The way I see it, it’s basketball,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “I know I ain’t no b-----ass mother------; so it doesn’t bother me.

“I’m not out here to prove to these dudes that I’m the hardest mother------ in the league because they cussed at me on the court. But they know where I’m from and what I’m about. This Oakland. But I don’t take s--- personal. My goal is to get the win.”

The series reaches that point

As the Thunder were on the verge of wrapping up Game 3 last Friday, a pivotal contest they desperately needed to extend the series, they perhaps enjoyed their first (and only) win of the series a little too much.

Dennis Schroder taunted Lillard by imitating his “Dame Time” motion, and George received the ball up the court and went in for a reverse dunk at the buzzer with the Thunder up 12.

The dunk was converted right after the buzzer, but it was the attempt to break the unwritten rule of running up the score that bothered some Trail Blazers, who classified the Thunder as frontrunners.

“The way I took it, I didn’t expect that from PG,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “I thought he was going to just dribble it out, but then he dunked it. I was like, ‘Damn. Didn’t expect that from him.’ Maybe they needed to do something to motivate them, but I wasn’t tripping.”

All of a sudden, Game 4 on Sunday instantly became a must-attend event … or so it seemed.

“Nah, stay home and enjoy Easter with the family,” he told Yahoo Sports after that Game 3 loss. “Come watch us close it out on Tuesday.”

As the Trail Blazers bounced back with a 13-point victory Sunday to take a 3-1 series lead, Lillard was subbed out before the final buzzer, but the Thunder’s Game 3 antics were still on his mind.

“S---, if I ended the game, I might have just fired a deep three at the buzzer,” he told Yahoo Sports. “But Coach took me out. I thought about telling [teammate Anfernee Simons] to shoot it, but I thought to myself that just because they did it, doesn’t mean we needed to. I yelled for him to just hold it.”

The Dame Show

In what will go down as one of the most insane, cold-blooded game-winners in NBA history, Lillard eliminated the Thunder in the most disrespectful fashion Tuesday night.

On the play before Lillard’s series-clinching bomb, Westbrook penetrated wildly to the basket and clanked the ball off the rim, setting the stage for Lillard’s heroics.

He waved “bye-bye” to the Thunder after the shot splashed, and he was tackled by teammates near halfcourt as sheer pandemonium erupted at Moda Center.

Lillard hugged his mother, brother, sister and grandfather, who were all courtside, and then he proceeded to walk along the court giving fans high-fives.

When reporters walked into the Trail Blazers’ locker room, Evan Turner said, “I hope y’all ask Schroder what’s up. He was talking that ‘Dame Time’ s---. That’s what it was tonight.”

At his postgame presser, George called Lillard’s dagger a “bad shot,” and the Blazers All-Star responded.

“It’s a bad shot, but I was 8-of-12 from 30-plus feet in the series and I work on it regularly. ... It wasn’t a bad shot tonight,” he told Yahoo Sports.

And with that, the Blazers forged ahead, put the Thunder on vacation and put some painful memories behind them.

“The reason I wanted this series is because if we really wanted to do something special, we needed a good test,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “Coming off how we were swept last year by New Orleans, I wanted to face a team and an opponent that people thought we couldn’t beat. I wanted to prove something from the jump. We needed a matchup that would potentially bring out the best of us. There were no excuses. We had every reason to be up for this.”

Westbrook was clearly overmatched in the series and often played into the Trail Blazers’ game plan by attempting so many jumpers. Lillard, who is perhaps the best point guard in the league not named Stephen Curry, said he wanted to dominate his position, but he never wanted to go outside of the team’s scheme to outplay Westbrook.

“I took it personal from the jump, but not in the sense of a one-on-one battle with Russ,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Throughout the series, I never bought into the discussion of what people on the outside were saying about our so-called beef. It was never personal with me. I wasn’t going to come down and try to match him shot for shot. I was trying to win.

“And it’s not hard because it’s OK to embrace the battle. But I wasn’t emotional about it. It’s cool because I know the game is still going to be the game regardless of what he’s saying or doing. My team needs me to keep my cool and lead the right way. Nothing was going to get in the way of that.”

Later on Monday evening at Lillard’s home, his barber stopped by to clean him up. Lillard sat in the barber chair and had some parting words.

“I’m going to get the last laugh,” he said. “I promise you that.”

At the end of the day, Lillard succeeded at getting his own triple-double: He kept his composure, led his team the right way and came through in the clutch.

That’s the most important triple-double there is.

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