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Damian Lillard’s Impossible Burden

It was not supposed to end like this for Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. Not this year.

Dealt what seemed like a fatal blow in March when Jusuf Nurkic, Portland’s indispensable inside presence, was lost for the season with a broken leg, the team somehow grew stronger. The Blazers entered the postseason ready to vanquish their playoff demons, and Lillard — so long in Golden State’s shadow and driven by a first-round exit last season — seemed up to the challenge.

That feeling only grew in the first round when he almost single-handedly dispatched the Oklahoma City Thunder, a plucky (and star-studded) underdog that some had predicted would pull off an upset. The series was over in only five games, and the only question it left was which of its biggest moments would live longer in the memories of basketball fans: the impossible shot Lillard threw up to end Game 5, the wave he offered toward the Thunder bench, or the look of dispassionate determination on his face when TV cameras captured him in a pile of his celebrating teammates.

Put this photo in the Hall of Fame.

Damian. Lillard. #DameTime⌚️ pic.twitter.com/BI3EU1OCf8

— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) April 24, 2019

Any one of the moments could be called iconic in its own right, but the look on Lillard’s face — all business at the center of a joyous, chaotic dogpile — served notice to the rest of the league that he was coming for them, as well.

Suddenly, after Monday’s collapse by Portland — one that came in a series full of Portland collapses — Lillard was gone. His team had reached the conference finals, but it was once again swept away by a Warriors dynasty that, even short two All-Stars, simply had too many options for Portland to breathe. And it was Lillard — nursing a rib injury sustained in Game 2 — whom they suffocated the most.

[With triple-doubles by Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, Golden State advanced to the N.B.A. finals for a fifth consecutive season.]

Through the first three games of the Blazers series, Golden State dared anyone but Lillard to beat them. The Warriors did so by throwing size and numbers at the 6-foot-3 Lillard, a four-time All-Star. If he got through the 6-foot-7 Klay Thompson, he had to deal with the 6-foot-6 Andre Iguodala; if he got through Iguodala, there stood Draymond Green, the most dominant defensive player of these playoffs, who is likely nowhere near his listed height of 6 feet 7 inches but plays as if he were well over 7 feet tall.

“It’s like a next layer of defense that I’m paying attention to, so whereas I’m not, I guess, wanting to explode and get around that guy, because I see what’s waiting for me,” Lillard said of Green on Sunday. He added: “It’s tough.”

ImageDamian Lillard was swarmed by Golden State’s defense in all four games of the West Conference finals.CreditJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Thanks in large part to Iguodala being out with an injury on Monday, Lillard found some room to breathe in Game 4. He scored 28 points, dished out 12 assists, and got some unexpected help from Meyers Leonard, who scored a career-high 30 points. But it wasn’t enough, as Golden State, which repeatedly fell behind, managed to win, 119-117, in overtime.

The strategy to swarm Lillard had worked so perfectly that it was almost surprising to see him suddenly looking like himself again. He came into Monday shooting a dismal 32.6 percent from the field and was scoring only 20.3 points a game — a steep drop-off from his average of 33 per game in the first round.

But Leonard, who had set a new career-high in points before the game reached halftime, opened some space on the floor and Lillard took full advantage, only to come up just short in the end with one last shot that could have extended his season. His 22-foot attempt with 1.3 seconds left could not find its way through the basket even if Coach Terry Stotts let himself dream that his superstar had delivered yet another game-winner.

“I thought it was going to — kind of meant to be,” Stotts said, struggling to sum up his emotions over the missed shot that ended his team’s season. “When he shot it, it had good arc. Yeah, I thought it had a chance.”

Lillard knew coming into the game that a loss would be blamed on him regardless of the quality of his play. Dogged by questions about the rib injury sustained in a collision with Kevon Looney, he seemed frustrated with fans who expected him to single-handedly lift a team that he has carried on his shoulders so many times in the past.

“I just think people want to see me doing it,” he said. “They want me to be making shots and doing all this stuff, but it’s different when you’re out there. Being a part of the game is different than somebody just watching.”

In a basketball landscape in which legacies seem to be constantly re-examined, Lillard’s struggles, real or imagined, are threatening to result in his being labeled a regular-season star who couldn’t lift his team in the playoffs. A Russell Westbrook, rather than a Kawhi Leonard.

Portland’s season ending early once again won’t help in that regard, but seven years into his career, Lillard has proved to be nothing short of phenomenal. He just wrapped up his fourth consecutive season of averaging 25 or more points a game, he has perhaps the deepest effective shooting range of any player not named Stephen Curry and he has shown over and over again that he is the type of star who can thrive when pressure is at its highest. Yet he was inexplicably left off the All-Star rosters in both 2016 and 2017, and he has finished in the top five of the Most Valuable Player Award voting only once.

ImageLillard had his season end at the hands of the Warriors on Monday, but he proved his postseason mettle by waving goodbye to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round and by helping lead his franchise to its first conference final since the 1999-2000 season.CreditSean Meagher/The Oregonian, via Associated Press

And while his teams have, indeed, failed in the playoffs, even a glance at the rosters Lillard has worked with versus the rosters of the team’s he’s competed against — Portland is 1-12 in the playoffs against Golden State over the last four years — seems to be enough to take any asterisks off his stardom.

Golden State’s players — even Green — said repeatedly on Sunday that they expected Lillard to come out firing in Game 4. They warned outsiders, and perhaps reminded themselves, that nothing should be seen as a foregone conclusion.

Lillard, faced with a series deficit no N.B.A. team has ever overcome, against a team that many feel is unbeatable, showed no signs of quitting right up until the final seconds of overtime. His season was on the brink, but he had come into the day still believing the Blazers could find a way to win not just the game but the entire series.

“You know, you look at the numbers and there’s a slim chance of you winning the series like that, but we’ve got a lot to play for,” Lillard said of coming back from a three-game deficit. “Obviously you never know when the first time it’s going to happen. We could be the first team to do it.”

They fell short of that mark. But Lillard managed to stay upbeat in the face of failure, pointing out that Portland had improved on its previous seasons.

“It’s another sweep,” he said, “but you’d rather be swept in the Western Conference finals than in the first round.”

Draymond Green Has Never Been Better. Or This Quiet.Golden State’s Green is known for his constant stream of chatter, but of late he has redirected it from the referees to the game with results a teammate could only describe as “ridiculous.”May 19, 2019Hope, a Flimsy Concept Against the Warriors, Is Slipping Away for the Trail BlazersAndre Iguodala foils Damian Lillard, and the Warriors take a two-games-to-none lead.May 17, 2019Damian Lillard From 37 Feet … and the Blazers Eliminate the ThunderLillard and the Trail Blazers waved goodbye to the Thunder.April 24, 2019Read More

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