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What Makes Damian Lillard Great? His Loyalty to Portland.


PORTLAND, Ore. — Damian Lillard should get indignant more often.

Through thick and thin with the one N.B.A. team he has known, Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers’ luminescent point guard, has at all times possessed a remarkable calm. Still, he shouldn’t be above letting defeats get to him, as he showed after a recent meltdown loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I’m confused why y’all asking me these questions without delay,” Lillard said in a news conference after his team coughed up a 25-point halftime lead. A reporter had asked Lillard in regards to the state of his listing team. I followed up by asking how far more patience he had.

Lillard’s voice sharpened, sending tension cracking through the room. It felt like his eyes were beaming lasers all through me.

“The struggles that we’ve had are obvious,” he said, adding that he had been “transparent” about how Portland could improve.

He continued, calling the queries a “weak move” and indicating that he thought he was being baited into criticizing the makeup of his team because the league’s trade deadline loomed. “Y’all putting me able to, you understand, answer questions that I don’t think is cool,” he said.

Later, I had one other interaction with Lillard, a temporary moment of reconciliation that exposed his character. I’ll get to that later. First, let’s concentrate on all that’s swirling, once more, around Portland’s star.

Lillard is the N.B.A.’s most interesting outlier.

“He’s certainly one of a form,” said Chauncey Billups, who spent nearly twenty years playing within the N.B.A. and is now the Blazers’ second-year head coach.

Billups wasn’t merely speaking about talent. Lillard is the rare basketball star who prizes loyalty to his city and team above all — even when which means waiting and waiting, and waiting some more, for his team to change into a championship contender.

“We understand how lucky we’re to have him,” Billups said. “Everyone on this city, and on this team, desires to win for Dame.”

Problem is, the Blazers are the basketball equivalent of a sturdy Honda Accord. For just about all of Lillard’s 11 seasons within the N.B.A., Portland has been a middling operation: good — sometimes excellent — but never great.

It defies the norm for Lillard to stay on a team that seems stuck in neutral, while never demanding a trade or opting to depart.

Six times, the 32-year-old has been named an All-Star, and 6 times he has been chosen for an All-N.B.A. team. He was voted onto the league’s Seventy fifth-anniversary team, meant to honor the 75 best players in league history. He won gold on the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 as a member of the U.S. men’s national team. Cat quick, graceful, brimming with the form of daring brio that may be a hallmark of his native Oakland, Calif., Lillard recently passed Clyde Drexler to change into Portland’s leading profession scorer.

And yet during Lillard’s tenure in Portland, the Blazers have made the Western Conference finals just once. The present Blazers are talented — and certainly one of the league’s youngest teams. Billups is learning on the job. If this team is to change into a real contender within the loaded Western Conference, it might not be until Lillard is on the downslope.

Can we be OK with that?

The past week offered us a window into Lillard’s world. Every week ago Sunday: the 121-112 meltdown defeat by the Lakers.

Portland’s postgame locker room felt like a morgue. Within the concourse at Moda Center, the Blazers’ saucer-shaped arena, fans set free, dishing details to me in regards to the team’s legacy of losing. On a Facebook page for Blazers fans, the reviews were unsparing: “Lillard must go for his profession to have any probability before it’s too late. This team is DONE!!”

The following day, the Blazers thumped the San Antonio Spurs, 147-127. Lillard had 37 points and 12 assists.

Then got here Wednesday. Peak Lillard. One for the books. Within the Blazers’ 134-124 victory over the visiting Utah Jazz, he scored 60 points, making an eye-popping 72 percent of his shots.

The remarkable thing was how easy it seemed. Lillard, averaging 30 points a game for the season, never once looked forced against the Jazz. He played what he described later as an “honest game,” at all times making the correct pass, moving the ball to the correct spots, pulling as much as shoot at exactly the correct time. When Jazz players swarmed him, he looked like a buzzing hornet at a summer barbecue that everybody desires to stomp but no one can catch.

Good? You bet. In line with ESPN, after considering combined marksmanship on shot attempts and free throws, it was essentially the most efficient 60-point game in league history. Informed of this, Lillard was shocked, and all smiles.

“Essentially the most efficient 60-point game ever, for real?” he said. “That’s crazy.”

On Saturday, Lillard continued his torrid pace and again hit his season scoring average, however the injury-depleted Blazers fell meekly to the Toronto Raptors. He’s doing all he can, to no avail. The Blazers sit at just 23 wins and 26 losses, mired in mediocrity, twelfth out of 15 teams within the West.

Like many, I’ve often thought that Lillard’s prime years were being wasted and that Portland should do right by him and discover a technique to move him to a contending team. He’s nearing his mid-30s — years when hardwood courts change into quicksand for shifty point guards — and a recent breed of young stars is wreaking havoc across the N.B.A.

Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic and lots of other 20-something talents are leavening the league with their skill and something near Lillard’s preternatural confidence.

N.B.A. life is barely going to get tougher for Lillard.

But I’m willing to reconsider the will to see him leave Portland. To follow the common line of considering, in spite of everything, is to put winning above all else. Sadly, that’s the reasoning that has helped fuel the whipsaw superstar shuffle currently coursing through the N.B.A. LeBron James from Cleveland to Miami, back to Cleveland after which to Los Angeles. James Harden from Houston to Brooklyn to Philadelphia. Example after example. I understand the “win above all else,” “grass is greener in every single place but here” sentiment — and I query it.

Winning is vital, little doubt. But isn’t there more to sports than victory?

Greater than another N.B.A. star of his caliber, Lillard embodies the notion that the journey — the customarily painful path toward convalescing — is the thing. It takes guts and patience and the power to go against the grain. He has that. It also takes a certain form of awareness that shows itself with deft passes and clutch shots and even in how players handle life off the court. Indeed, he seems to have that, too.

Remember how Lillard bristled at my query after the loss to Los Angeles? By probability, I discovered myself next to him in an arena hallway later.

He stopped me, shook my hand and looked me straight in the attention. He said he was sorry for his scolding response. The look on his face showed real sincerity.

“I didn’t mean any personal disrespect,” he said.

What stars would do this? Not many. “Sorry” isn’t often within the playbook. But not many are like Damian Lillard.

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