Damian Lillard Got His Flowers, But the Night Belonged to the Trail Blazers' Future
Lillard's much-anticipated Portland homecoming was upstaged by his former team's most impressive win of the season.
📍 PORTLAND, Ore. — A night that was dedicated to celebrating the Trail Blazers’ past ended up providing a promising glimpse of what their future could look like.
The Damian Lillard elements of Wednesday night did what they needed to do. He got four lengthy standing ovations—one when the Bucks came out for warmups, one during player introductions and one after each of the two tribute videos the team ran during the first two timeouts. One of the videos ran through Lillard’s on-court greatest-hits in his 11 seasons in Portland; the other focused on his off-the-court community and charity work. They weren’t too long—he isn’t retiring, after all—but they hit all the right notes.
His night wasn’t great or awful: 25 points on 9-of-23 shooting, 3-of-13 from three-point range, six rebounds, seven assists, four turnovers. One of those makes wasn’t quite a logo three but it was logo-adjacent. He said he wasn’t going to cry, and after the fact denied that he did, but he did.
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If what you wanted out of the night was closure from the return of the franchise’s all-time leading scorer after this summer’s trade to Milwaukee, you got it. But the actual basketball game was pretty good, too. And it was good in the exact way that showcased what the post-Lillard version of the Blazers is trying to be.
Rebuilding teams don’t have a lot in the way of games with stakes, because the game-to-game results only matter so much in a season where the playoffs isn’t the goal. Wednesday qualifies. They were playing in front of a Moda Center crowd that was up there with any of the building’s legendary playoff crowds. They were also playing in front of the wider world for the first time, with it being their only game of the year on national television. Unless you’re a Blazers fan or a League Pass degenerate, this might be the only time you watch this team all year. The Lillard homecoming was the source of intrigue, but his former team acquitting themselves well on this stage wouldn’t hurt things, either.
They did that, and then some.
“I just didn't think the moment was too big for our team,” Chauncey Billups said afterwards.
Everything the organization envisions for the next era was there. Anfernee Simons went toe-to-toe with Lillard and made the shot to put Portland ahead for good. Deandre Ayton continued his strong week with a 20-point, 11-rebound performance. Toumani Camara got several key stops. Scoot Henderson was electric in his first-half shift, one of the most impactful stretches he’s played this season.
The Blazers don’t have many wins this season, and they don’t have many against good teams. Before tonight, their best ones were against Sacramento and Indiana. But this one, with these stakes, in what is the closest thing to a playoff atmosphere most of these guys have seen in their NBA careers, is the one that will define whatever positive progress the organization sees at the end of the season.
“This was a big character win for us,” Billups said. “A culture win.”
That culture is something Billups is still building. After the disastrous early-January road trip, it looked dead in the water. They’ve stabilized since then, not only getting back to the way it looked early in the season but exceeding it, now that they have an extended stretch with most of their rotation healthy.
It will take at least another couple of years to get back to the perennial playoff contention the Blazers enjoyed throughout Lillard’s 11 seasons. But on Wednesday, you could start to see what it will look like when it gets there.
“It's gonna be special,” Henderson said. “I'm just letting you know right now. It's gonna be fun to watch. We're just getting the team back together. It'll take a little time. It's hard to have a group of young guys just collaborate in a way that we know we can. That takes time. When it happens, it's gonna be special and we know that.”