THE CLOCK HANGS on a silver hook, “Lillard Time” scrawled across in red cursive. A “D” is in place of where the 12 would be. It’s always set to midnight. It’s always Lillard Time.
It’s an Adidas promotional item that found a home inside Damian Lillard‘s locker, along with a few other items of importance, such as hand-drawn pictures from fans and keepsakes from games.
There’s some debate over whether “Lillard Time” or “Dame Time” is the preferred term, and where you fall depends mostly on when you started following. While Dame Time dates to when Lillard was staring for the Oakland Rebels in AAU ball, Lillard Time was officially stamped as a professional colloquialism on May 2, 2014.
The play wasn’t even really for Lillard, set up instead to go to LaMarcus Aldridge for a tip shot inside the paint. But down two with 0.9 seconds left in Game 6 of the Portland Trail Blazers‘ first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, Lillard sprinted off the right wing toward inbounder Nicolas Batum. Lillard clapped his hands, calling for the ball. It was delivered, and so did he, splashing a pure 28-footer on the left wing with Chandler Parsons chasing as the horn rang. The Blazers were on to the second round for the first time since 2000.
That shot against the Rockets changed Lillard’s life — and the Trail Blazers’ trajectory. He had a $100 million signature shoe deal and was doing commercials, and with a catchphrase and likability, Lillard’s stock was soaring. To this day, framed pictures of the shot hang in offices in the Blazers’ practice facility, because it represented — and still does, really — a new era of promise for the Blazers, an emergence from an apparent destiny of perpetual adversity and heartbreak.
From the knees that betrayed Brandon Roy to choosing Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant, the Blazers had been star-crossed and flat unlucky for more than a decade. And that was after being star-crossed and unlucky 20 years before that.
The following season, they won 51 games but were grit-and-grinded by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. They won 44 the next season and beat the LA Clippers in six games before falling to the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the second round. They were .500 in 2016-17, and were swept by the Warriors in the first round.
And last season, after winning 49 and landing the 3-seed, they were again swept in the first round, this time by the New Orleans Pelicans.
Lillard had a horrible series — 35 percent shooting, a near even assist-to-turnover ratio. It was now 10 straight playoff losses, two straight first-round outs and never anything beyond the second round.
After the Pelicans sweep, Lillard shut down everything. He didn’t watch any of the playoffs, avoiding the chance of some highlight of Anthony Davis swarming him in the pick-and-roll or a Nikola Mirotic contested fadeaway 3 popping up to remind him of the failure.
The trendy choice? Portland.
The Blazers started their season by beating the Los Angeles Lakers, then proceeded to win 53 games to, once again, hold home-court advantage in their opening-round playoff series. While the rest of the league reacted to their playoff disappointment, the Blazers didn’t. Especially Lillard, who made no demands, except of himself. Those close to him know he was deeply bothered by another first-round out, but his rational, levelheaded demeanor drives the Blazers, and his message was simple: It happens. Move forward.
“Sometimes,” he said, “it’s just your turn to go through hard times.”
The deal of Lillard Time: If you’re willing to shoot your shot, you have to be willing to live with missing. Consider: Lillard is 28-of-85 on go-ahead or game-tying shots in the last 30 seconds of games in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That’s 57 misses, or 29 more failures than successes. But that’s also tied for the most makes during that span with Russell Westbrook, and five more than LeBron, six more than James Harden and eight more than Durant.
“I always talk about, like, with end-of-game situations, making and missing big shots, I know I can shoulder that,” Lillard said. “I can live with having the success of the playoffs and having a huge failure. I know I can deal with it.”
The confidence never wavers for Damian Lillard. But when will it be Lillard’s time?
THE BEER WAS on ice and ready in Terry Stotts’ office. There wasn’t going to be a big celebration or anything, more an acknowledgement and appreciation.
With a win over the Brooklyn Nets, the Blazers would clinch a sixth consecutive postseason appearance, one that surely meant more to the organization after the death of longtime owner Paul Allen in October. (“As a group, we play with that [memory],” Lillard said after Portland’s Game 1 win on Sunday over the Oklahoma City Thunder.)
Stotts planned to give a speech to his team about proving the doubters wrong, about how predictions didn’t have them making it and to take pride in that accomplishment. But most importantly, that they weren’t finished yet.
“This is a league of expectations,” Stotts said. “And you celebrate when you exceed expectations. We expected to make the playoffs but nobody else did, so we needed to take pride in that.”
Making the playoffs for top-tier franchises is just a checked box on the season, a footnote for next season’s media guide. It became a footnote for a completely different reason.
In double overtime against the Nets on March 28, Jusuf Nurkic jumped to tip in a rebound and came down awkwardly in a mess of bodies under the basket. His left leg got caught and broke as the weight of his 7-foot, near-300-pound frame hit the floor. It was a two-point game with 2:22 left, and while the Blazers went on to win 148-144, those final minutes were filled with shock.
Stotts’ postgame media conference contained fewer than 50 words; he could only describe Nurkic’s injury as “devastating.” The locker room was bleak, almost mournful, players talking in hushed whispers, just the sounds of showers droning and plastic hangers clicking against each other.
“A lot of people kind of … conform. I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying don’t care about championships. That’s not my point. But what I’m saying is a lot of people give in to the pressure of, ‘I didn’t have this, I didn’t have rings.'”
A season of redemption was in danger before the Blazers even got the chance to redeem anything. With Nurkic on the floor, the Blazers were plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents. When he’s on the floor, the Blazers have the best offense in the NBA (116.0 points per 100 possessions). When he’s off, the Blazers are minus-2.4 points per 100 possessions — an offense on par with the 19-win Cleveland Cavaliers.
Lillard sat at his locker after the Nets game, gathering his thoughts. He was sullen. Lillard talked about how just the other day Nurkic had dropped by his house to visit and see Lillard’s 1-year-old son. Lillard spoke of how fragile the NBA is, how much the friendships matter.
The team boarded a flight for Chicago the next day, and Stotts addressed the injury at practice. He told the team about the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, a team on which Stotts was an assistant coach, losing Caron Butler to injury midway through the season when they had the fourth-best record in the league.
Portland’s midseason acquisitions of Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter (who had 20 points and 18 rebounds in Game 1 versus the Thunder and was crowned the MVP of the game by Lillard) have proved vital, deepening the roster and allowing the Blazers to absorb some adversity. CJ McCollum is nearing full strength after a left knee injury, and Lillard is finding the peak of his powers. There’s still a belief they can be dangerous in the postseason, but even after an emotional Game 1 win, some still expect them to bow out in the first round.
Those kind of things are just kerosene to the already burning flame for Lillard: If it were easy, what’s the reward in that?
LOST SOMEWHERE IN the Portland suburb of Lake Oswego, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey made up his mind about Lillard.
It was June 2012, and Lillard had just finished a private workout with the Blazers. He and Olshey hopped in a car to meet Paul Allen and staff for an interview and dinner. Only Olshey, newly hired and new to the area, didn’t really know where he was going. Neither did Lillard.
While the duo navigated their way to dinner, Lillard displayed an obvious charisma that impressed Olshey. Coming from the Clippers, Olshey had spent a year around Chauncey Billups and had seen a lot of the same qualities in Lillard. There were other factors: how good Lillard was in the pick-and-roll, how analytics loved his game, his scoring ability.
Twenty-four days after Olshey was hired, he made his first executive decision. He selected Lillard with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft.
“We think we had one of the best drafts in the league,” Olshey said at his post-draft media conference. “We found our franchise point guard.”
To some, though, it looked like an unnecessarily risky pick: taking an undersized guard from Weber State, especially with highly regarded prospects such as Harrison Barnes and Terrence Ross on the board.
Olshey tied himself to Lillard immediately. There would be no competition at his position. Lillard would start from Day 1.
There are leaders in a locker room and there are caretakers of an organization. Lillard is naturally both. He calls a car service to help a new teammate like Kanter get home. He watches G League games — full games — to give feedback to Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons. Lillard and McCollum fly commercial to go to Las Vegas Summer League to watch the Blazers’ young players. He has taken the 15th man on the roster on a shopping spree to get outfitted to sit on an NBA bench. He has invested in building the team, texting Olshey about prospects while he watched the NCAA tournament, wondering if one is a first-round talent.
“I think Damian might be the best star leader in the league,” Stotts said. “There are leaders in this league, but being a star and a leader the way he conducts himself around his teammates, on the basketball court, in the locker room, in the community, he’s the same guy every day.”
Lillard deflects credit for the Blazers’ culture, citing by name a list of coaches (some no longer with the team) that deserve more recognition than him — David Vanterpool, Nate Tibbetts, Kaleb Canales, Kim Hughes, Jim Moran, Dale Osbourne, John McCullough. He points out that both Stotts and Olshey were there before him.
“The environment [Stotts] creates by giving opportunity and freedom and relaxed atmosphere and how comfortable it is,” Lillard said, “I think that’s where it all starts.
“I want to see things work out for everybody … so it’s a burden I place on myself to make sure that we are performing at a certain level, that we get certain things done.”
Even with the context of Nurkic’s injury, what if the Blazers go out again in the first round? Are big changes coming? Will they react differently? There might be cries to blow it all up. But what’s on the other side of that?
The Blazers aren’t really interested in a rebuild. Their chips are all-in with Lillard until he either retires or leaves. And the chances of the latter are basically nonexistent.
Lillard isn’t shy talking about his affinity for the Blazers and desire to hold all their franchise records. He is open talking about what the Blazers have, how sound their culture is, how it should be a place players want to play. When he is asked about how he has impacted those things, with context in the question of how it doesn’t seem like he is ever considering playing somewhere else, he interrupts the question: “No, I’m not.”
The pressure Lillard feels is less about personal achievement and more about what outcomes mean for those who count on him in the organization. What did a sweep mean for Stotts? For his staff? For the trainers and their families? For teammates that he loves, such as Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless? Other places would’ve fired the coach or made a trade after the embarrassment of last postseason. The Blazers just did what they’ve always done: They leaned on Lillard.
“There wasn’t any finger pointing,” Stotts said. “A lot of teams could’ve gone either way in those situations, and I think because of his character, it helped hold it together.”
Lillard is 28 and has probably close to another decade of All-Star-level play in him. In the present Ringz culture, where titles trump every reasonable debate, to some it feels hollow to believe in the beauty of sustained success and consistent opportunity. One championship, at whatever cost, is more important than any journey to get there. Lillard doesn’t subscribe to that.
“A lot of people kind of … conform,” he said, thinking over the word choice. “I don’t want it to sound like I’m saying don’t care about championships. That’s not my point. But what I’m saying is a lot of people give in to the pressure of, ‘I didn’t have this, I didn’t have rings.'”
Lillard mentions legendary players, such as Gary Payton, a fellow Oakland native who played the majority of his career in the Pacific Northwest. He asks a question: Do you even remember that Payton won a championship in 2006 with the Miami Heat?
“When you talk about Gary Payton, you talk about Gary Payton in Seattle,” Lillard said. “You don’t talk about Gary Payton winning a championship in Miami, coming off the bench. With the Heat and D-Wade and Shaq, he was on that team. But nobody talks about that.”
Lillard talks about Dirk Nowitzki and the respect he demands. How his one championship in Dallas carries the weight of what three or four on a superteam chasing rings would. Legacy is a complicated topic in professional sports. But Lillard already understands what he wants his to be.
“It’s the people I work with every day, my teammates, the coaching staff, our training staff,” he said. “I value that and the impact it has on me and the impact I have on it. I think you’ve got to take those things into consideration. We’re all working together to try and win a championship; that’s our main thing we want to accomplish.
“But if it doesn’t happen, you still have to have a certain level of appreciation and love of the other things.”
IN THE CHURN of rumors and stars leveraging their way to different situations, Lillard’s name rarely comes up. There’s no back channeling, no offshore recruiting going on at events or All-Star Games.
He isn’t listening. But if you call, he’ll have something to say: If you want to play with a star, come here. We’re the ones that are winning.
“I look at somebody that’s close in age with me that’s a really good player that could bump us up a level,” Lillard said. “When I think of that, I’m saying, OK, Anthony Davis. We’ve got a winning culture. We win, we’re not jealous of each other, we have a good time.
“A player like that, when I think of these situations, that’s what I think of. He’ll win, he’ll get to be himself and he’ll get to be on a team that fits. I think he would be perfect for us.”
Portland isn’t the kind of place that makes superstar shortlists, however. It’s the kind of place, like Oklahoma City or San Antonio or Utah, that you have to see behind the scenes to understand.
Like how the Thunder took their chance with Paul George or the Raptors are with Kawhi Leonard, Lillard thinks the Blazers could sell the same thing: Passionate fan base, high-quality leadership, a strong front office. And maybe most importantly, an established franchise player that any kind of star should want to join.
“I know if a bunch of people come around, they’ll see. I’m not for show,” Lillard said. “I’m not in competition with nobody. I’m trying to be the best version of myself and get the job done. … It would take people to be a part of it to see it. That’s just the part that is unfortunate.
“Because you don’t get official visits in the NBA.”
Whatever the future holds for the Blazers, though, if it’s another first-round out or a deep, validating playoff run, the perspective isn’t changing.
“I just stay the course,” Lillard said. “We got swept; it was bad. Sometimes, it’s your turn.”