Will to win: Damian Lillards rare gifts power the Blazers inside and out originally appeared on nbcsportsnorthwest.com
This is the second of a three part All-Star Break feature series.
The Trail Blazers arrived at their Miami hotel late. It was a Saturday night in March 2017 and Portland had just come off a troubling road loss in Atlanta that dropped their record to 31-37.
Damian Lillard and Evan Turner stayed up late into the early hours of Sunday watching boxing and chatting. Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez lost his perfect 46-0 record and then Gennady Golovkin went 12 rounds with Danny Jacobs. When the fights ended, Lillard and Turner were up until around 2 a.m., the conversation mostly steering far away from a bad loss just hours earlier.
The following day, Lillard lit up the Miami Heat for 49 points, dragging the Blazers across the finish line with his own heavyweight performance.
It was the first time Turner came to truly appreciate his teammate's' greatest strength. On the flight home, he came to a realization that Lillard's will and determination set him apart from other star players Turner had played with in his career.
"Just when you watch him play. The only thing I can say is it's his will," Turner says. "I don't know if he's born with it or if it's from his Dad or anything, but it's a will. That's the only thing you can really say."The deep three-pointers are obvious. The scoring binges are easy to count on the scoreboard and the stat sheet. But what separates Lillard is an authentic and unflappable belief in himself and his teammates.
Sometimes that plays out in more subtle ways.
Earlier this February, the Blazers trailed Miami by eight with the clock running under 30 seconds. Terry Stotts had instructed his team not to foul. But Lillard wasn't ready to accept defeat and watch the clock run out. He committed a foul with 15 seconds left.
"I'm like ‘Bro, we can't win,'" Turner recalls thinking. "But in my head I'm like ‘Let me stop' because that dude truly believes in winning in any situation."
It can come off as corny or even out of touch in interviews. After tough losses, Lillard will insist his team was ‘right there,' a few bad bounces away from pulling out a win. When asked about title contenders, Lillard will scoff if a reporter doesn't include the Blazers among those likely to be competing for a championship. Even more tangibly, Lillard won't finalize promotional trips in the summer that are scheduled for early June, earnestly believing that the Blazers will still be playing.
When Lillard discusses games, he will often circle back to some version of the phrase "our minds were in the right place." Lillard's mindset and his ironclad will are perhaps his best attributes. The "You Know What Time It Is" branding on his adidas signature shoes is born out of that attitude. He refuses to accept games have been decided and has the requisite ability to change outcomes in the waning seconds.
It's why when talking about the postseason, Lillard laughs when asked if there will be lingering effects from Portland's disheartening playoff sweep at the hands of New Orleans.
"I'm one of those people that I believe you gotta go through [stuff]," Lillard says. "You gotta experience that stuff. That's just what it is. I look at it as a time that we had to go through it. Everybody's had their time where they've had to go through that failure, or that struggle, whatever you want to call it. It's how you use that, and how you bounce back from it. That's all it is to me now."
He points out that Pelicans have completely unraveled since they beat the Blazers in the playoffs last April, while Portland is right back in the mix, yet again eyeing home court advantage in the postseason.
"When we get to playoffs that's where it comes from here," Lillard says, tapping his heart. "That's when you're like, ‘Alright that's not happening again. We're coming with it and having a better performance.'"
Lillard's intangible skills have been praised countless times before. His leadership holds the Blazers together and helps to seamlessly incorporate new additions to the locker room. But his unmatched will and uncommon determination are at times under appreciated. The Blazers' franchise player genuinely believes his team can compete for a title this season, and for a few of his teammates that belief is contagious
"I honestly believe up until the last second that we have a chance," Turner says. "Because the dude is gold."
The Blazers have added depth this season, they've found a better role for Turner and coaxed more consistency out of Jusuf Nurkic. But the constant is the play and unwavering belief of Lillard, the guy that taps his heart when talking about the playoffs and taps his wrist at crunch time.
Read part 3: The Blazers look different, but are they better?