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That Night: Damian Lillard's Homecoming vs. Suns Shut Down by Teammates

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Damian Lillard’s first game at the Moda Center since December 2021 was a legacy performance that would add to the legend of Lillard’s ten-year, story-filled Portland Trail Blazers career.

It was interrupted by surgery after a disappointing 2021-22 campaign. After all the speculation and doubts about whether he can return to form. And after a rough season opener, the chatter got even more rampant—the six-time All-Star presented its Friday night rebuttal:

A 41-point masterclass against the Phoenix Suns in a 113-111 win in exciting overtime. Despite all the doubts outside, nothing about the night shocked Lillard.

“I am free now [physical issues], that was the breakthrough moment for me…Going through training camp without missing training or being disturbed,” Lillard said after the win. “When it came to the game, my game felt good. it was just a matter of time [a big performance] would happen.”

After Wednesday’s opening game of the season against Sacramento, head coach Chauncey Billups said, “We have to have other guys there when he’s not. [Lillard’s] night.” That was what happened against the Kings when Portland won 115-108 despite Lillard shooting 28% off the field.

Friday was the reverse of that pattern, as Lillard was there to keep Portland afloat on a night off from his teammates. That is, until the supporting cast is handed over at the most crucial time.

But we’ll get to that part later. Let’s go back to Lillard first.

On a night when his teammates were struggling to score and good at turning the ball, Lillard shot 12-25 from the field, 12-12 from the line and 5-12 from the three-pointers, some of whom dribbled poorly. moves with a hand on his face.

He did most of that damage in the first half and helped Portland stay in touch against the Suns, which had the best regular season record in the NBA last year. Lillard said it wasn’t one of those nights when she felt an unconscious score tear coming. Still, he knew from his first basket—when Jusuf Nurkic found him to back-scoop Devin Booker—that he would be effective.

“I was like, ‘OK, I can find some loopholes and loopholes in defensive methods,'” Lillard said. “In that moment, I knew I could be in control enough to play a good game.”

Lillard followed up on that score by attacking Deandre Ayton from the pick-and-roll for a right-handed player. Then he pulled for a crossing trio in his next bucket. The much talked about explosion was remarkable (breathe easy, Bill Simmons) and his sweater looked pure.

When Lillard rains back and forth, tough As they closed the first half with a three-pointer, the home crowd knew what was coming. Vintage Women’s Time.

Breaking a career-high 28 points in the first half, Lillard shot 66.6% from the field, 57.1% from depth and 100% from the free throw line.

Portland needed every bit of this offense. At the halftime, Portland’s next top scorer was Josh Hart with 6 points. Anfernee Simons shot 1-7 off the field with 3 points and 4 turnovers. Jerami Grant, Portland’s top scorer with 23 points in game one, did not attempt a single field goal.

In addition to these issues, the Blazers acted sloppy, putting the ball in the air 12 times, leading to 23 turnovers and a 12 point Suns lead at one point. Despite all that, Portland was only trailing 53-47. It was the Lillard Effect.

But help came at last with a critical yawn from Lillard on the bench. With Lillard controlling 2:44 in third place and Portland trailing 73-68, the second troop led by Simons took Portland’s first lead of the night. Drew Eubanks and Justise Winslow provided energy, Simons got tough buckets and Nassir Little scored 7 big points. The squad, which also included rookie Shaedon Sharpe, led Portland 83-82, trailing Phoenix 15-9 before Lillard re-entered the game with 9:22 remaining in regulation.

“They came and they won that division, and when they won that division, the crowd got involved,” Lillard said. “At one point we took the lead and that gave us the momentum we needed to finally win this game.”

The rest of the way was pincers. When Lillard cooled off at the end of the regulation and in overtime, his teammates came back. First, Simons hit a triple with a Lillard pass and took a 100-99 lead in less than two minutes. Then, Nurkic, who was the most stable Blazer outside of Lillard all night, recorded clutch free throws and 5 of Portland’s 11 points in overtime. The tall man had a lackluster opening game with 20 points (8-9 FT) and 17 rebounds against Phoenix.

“He played on two legs, not on one leg, all night. [not] I’m in a hurry,” Billups said post-game. And he was really good on defense… excellent game from Nurk.”

Lillard made a groundbreaking attempt to play the protagonist in the edit, but bounced off the hoop (that would have been too much of a storybook). Apparently it belonged to Simons who won the game on Lillard’s big night.

“I said, ‘Everybody has to be ready,'” Billups said. “I don’t know who will take that final shot, I don’t know who will get the opportunity, but I know who won’t. They’re going to blow up Dame.'”

With a blitz against Lillard in the final seconds of the game, Simons found the ball in his hands, isolated on the left wing against First-Team All-NBA defender Mikal Bridges. His former backup, now firmly in the spotlight, sized Bridges with a three-leg dribble. Then he drove right for a wide, right-handed skyhook in the lane.

Ayton missed two free throws in the next position and Portland was spared. After a brutal first half, Simons dealt Phoenix the decisive blow. Billups was impressed with the shot, but was also impressed by Lillard’s faith as the team leader.

“It just speaks volumes of his trust in Ant, but all these guys,” Billups said. “That’s what we’re trying to keep building.”

Lillard protected his teammates early on. They returned the favor late. And the new-looking Blazers 2-0.

“We kept coming and I think that’s becoming our identity as a team,” Lillard said. “We’re boring. We’re brave. We’re tough. And we’re together.”