LOS ANGELES — Damian Lillard was enraged in the third quarter Friday night. He felt the Los Angeles Lakers were getting away with routinely roughing him up. And to make matters worse, he received a technical for his complaints to officials.
This was what ignited the tear.
With less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Lillard brought the ball up the floor with Avery Bradley, arguably the Lakers’ best on-ball perimeter defender, snuggly in his space. Lillard drove left toward Hassan Whiteside, who was waiting to set a screen.
Once Lillard used the pick, he stopped on a dime and raised up for a triple, and Bradley crashed into the back of him as he drew the foul and swished the 3-pointer to the chagrin of the sold-out Staples Center crowd.
Immediately after the foul, Lillard walked by the fans sitting courtside and yelled, “They can’t f--- with me!” before shooting his free throw.
He exploded for 23 points and was 6-of-7 from 3-point range in the quarter, finishing with a game-high 48 points to go with nine rebounds, 11 assists and seven threes to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to a 127-119 victory Friday night.
With his dominant performance, Lillard became the first player in NBA history to record 35-plus points, five-plus rebounds, five-plus assists and five-plus threes in five straight games, and he set an NBA record with 40 made threes in that five-game span.
On a night filled with so many raw emotions and tears before the Lakers’ first game since Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were among nine killed in a helicopter crash last Sunday in Calabasas, California, it was Lillard who paid the ultimate tribute by going full Mamba.
“I tried not to think too hard on it and just focus on the game,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “I wasn’t going to buy into, ‘Everyone needed to have the Mamba Mentality.’ I think we should all be out there trying to be our best selves and be out there working to get the job done. I just wanted to honor him by competing and coming out here playing a great game and trying to win.”
There weren’t many dry eyes in the arena during the pregame memorial ceremony. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Quinn Cook were seen uncontrollably weeping at times as they struggled with their emotions. The heartfelt tributes showcased some of Bryant’s most memorable moments. But for Lillard, he has a moment with the Lakers legend that he will never forget.
Six years ago, Lillard was sitting on the bench, staring into space in clear anger and frustration.
The scene was the 2014 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans.
Before tipoff, the Trail Blazers’ star was enjoying the experience of being selected to his first All-Star Game in only his second season. He was elated and on such an adrenaline high that he agreed to make NBA history by competing in the quintet of events held during All-Star Weekend: the Rising Stars Game, the Skills Challenge, the Slam Dunk Contest, the 3-Point Contest and the All-Star Game.
But the final and main event of the weekend was a disappointment. Coaching the West squad was Scott Brooks, who was then the Oklahoma City Thunder’s head coach.
Lillard wasn’t getting a chance to play, logging just eight minutes, the second fewest behind Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, who was the oldest player in the game at 35.
Bryant was voted in as a starter, but was unable to play because he was recovering from an Achilles’ tendon tear. He noticed how dejected Lillard was sitting near the end of the bench. With no prior relationship established, Bryant decided to sit by the young guard and deliver a stern message.
“You f---ing belong here [as an All-Star],” Lillard said Bryant told him. “You’re right where you’re supposed to be with everyone here. You’re an All-Star. Just keep working young fella.”
Throughout the course of the game, Bryant kept reminding Lillard of that.
“For me, I’ve never sought out validation and I’ve never needed it ... but when it came from him, it was just different. It hit different to me,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “I appreciated that more because of just the history of growing up a fan, idolizing him and then becoming a peer. When you hear it from him, you know it’s certified. So, that just meant a lot to me.”
This tragedy is still too raw for many.
The Trail Blazers gave Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza the option of playing in Friday’s game or staying in Portland because of their close relationships with Bryant. Anthony, who played in the Olympics with Bryant, was still grieving the loss and wasn’t ready for Friday night’s emotional atmosphere and powerful tribute.
Ariza played two years with Bryant, winning a championship together with the Lakers in 2009. Ariza made the trip and played 39 minutes as a primary defender on James, who scored 22 points on 22 shots.
“If I didn’t play, I would have been at home just sick,” Ariza told Yahoo Sports. “I’m still numb, but I just had to play. I had to play for him. That’s what he would have wanted.”
Last summer, Bryant held an invite-only training camp at his Mamba Sports Academy headquarters in Thousand Oaks, California. Some of the players included Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Aaron Gordon, De’Aaron Fox and Jamal Murray.
Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum received an invite, but he already had a trip scheduled and couldn’t make it.
“I was like, ‘That’s cool that I got the invite, but I’ll just make it next year,’” McCollum told Yahoo Sports, regretfully. “That’s crazy. Next year. Damn, bro, this is tough.”
The Lakers beautifully honored Bryant, Gianna, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester and pilot Ara Zobayan, and the organization hit the perfect notes all evening.
But in many ways it was an agonizing night for everyone involved.
“I’m just going to take from it the memories and the special moment before the game. Nobody wins tonight,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “You don’t walk away from this game with too much to be proud about because of the circumstances. We got the win, but I think the moment and what it was about tonight is the one thing I won’t forget.”
The end of the game was uniquely fitting.
The Trail Blazers won by eight points, the first number worn by Bryant. They took a 24-second shot clock violation on their final possession of the contest, and all that was left on the clock for the Lakers was 2.2 seconds. Gianna wore No. 2.
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