Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard entered this season hot off a strong postseason and with the chance to become a true national NBA superstar. It’s safe to say that things have not gone according to plan. While Lillard’s scoring average has risen to a career-best 26.5 points per game, his status as Portland’s no-doubt cornerstore has taken a hit over an up-and-down season. The rise of C.J. McCollum has convinced some Blazers fans that he should be the preferred lead guard moving forward, and the Blazers’ non-playoff status in the West has raised questions regarding the viability of this exact version of the team. Put simply, it would behoove Lillard to show up big in the closing weeks of this season and salvage a playoff berth for the Blazers.
Lillard certainly did his part to get Portland that the No. 8 spot in Sunday’s game against the Miami Heat. Facing a top-five defense, Lillard dominated offensively with a season-high 49 points on a very efficient 14-of-21 from the field, 9-of-12 from beyond the arc, and 12-of-12 from the line. He also added five assists as the Blazers picked up a nice 115-104 road win.
It’s not fair to expect a game like this one from a player especially often, but Lillard could have used a few similarly dominant performances earlier this year. He’s scored at least 35 points in nine other games this season, but he has only taken control to this extent on a few occasions. This was Lillard at his best — not afraid to take risks, ball-dominant, and, above all else, capable of making tough shots with regularity. When he plays like this and the likes of McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic do their part, the Blazers seem like a team that can easily make up the gap on the eighth-place Denver Nuggets and return to the postseason.
That margin now stands at a single game. With only 13 games remaining for both teams, their sole remaining head-to-head on March 28 looms as a potential playoff berth-deciding contest. The Blazers currently lead the season series 2-1 and would grab the tiebreaker with a win, but their current form may indicate more about their chances. Portland has won three in a row and eight of its last ten, a run that indicates just how much higher their ceiling is than the rest of the sub-.500 teams chasing Denver.
Even with the standings as they are, the conference’s last playoff spot feels like it’s theirs to lose. Whether the Blazers are able to lock it up likely depends on how consistent Lillard and other key players can be.
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