NBA players ensconced inside the Walt Disney World bubble are allowed to experience the park’s rides, but only after the park is closed to the general public. Had anyone decided to go on, say, “The Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith” on Thursday, they probably would have had to wait until at least 9 p.m. (Disney’s Hollywood Studios closes at 8 p.m., and one assumes it takes employees at least an hour to secure and disinfect both the coaster and Joe Perry’s black Les Paul.) That would have been a rotten decision, though, because it would have meant missing the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard—the theme park’s most exciting attraction—scoring 42 points in a must-win game against the Brooklyn Nets.
Had the Blazers lost, they would have been knocked out of playoff contention and jettisoned from central Florida. But the team had Lillard, and he simply wasn’t going to let that happen. Portland’s 134–133 win secured the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed and a spot in the league’s inaugural play-in tournament this weekend. It was far more thrilling than any Steven Tyler–themed roller coaster.
Lillard has been the standout player of the NBA’s restart, an impressive distinction considering the fine (and, at times, shocking) contributions of guys like Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, and T.J. Warren. Lillard is averaging 37.6 points and 9.6 assists during the restart and has willed Portland to a 6–2 record. In his past three games—all must-wins—Lillard put up 154 combined points. That’s a Wilt Chamberlain–like haul, and it came from a 6-foot-2-inch guard. I’m not entirely sure how copyright law works, but I believe this makes Lillard Disney’s most valuable intellectual property at the moment.
Take his lone notable moment of fallibility inside the bubble, when he missed two key free throws at the end of an Aug. 8 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Patrick Beverley and some of his Clipper teammates had fun at Lillard’s expense, and they gleefully mocked his “Dame Time” celebration from the socially distanced bench.
Afterward, Lillard delivered a speech that had me worried he was going to lure Beverley into his wine cellar and offer him a cask of vintage Amontillado.
“Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who—I sent him home before, at the end of a game,” he said. “Paul George is a guy sent home by me last year in the playoffs, so they know.” If your goal is to stop Lillard, mocking him may not be the wisest route. He hung 51 points on the Philadelphia 76ers—innocent bystanders!—in the very next game, and he followed that up with a 61-point performance against the Dallas Mavericks. (The latter mark is the most points scored in a game by any player this season, save for another 61-point outing back in January from … Damian Lillard.)
It all would have been for naught, however, had the Trail Blazers lost to the Nets on Thursday. While Brooklyn technically had nothing to play for (its playoff seeding was already secured), the Nets still managed to push the Trail Blazers to the absolute limit. Portland trailed throughout much of the second half and were staring at a 7-point deficit early in the fourth quarter when Lillard decided to live up to his “Logo” Lillard nickname and casually let one fly from the edge of Jerry West’s center-court silhouette.
That shot was a lot of things—daring, brash, perhaps ill-advised—but it was not unpredictable. Lillard called it in April.
If it seems like Lillard only plays in close games during the restart, it’s because he does. Citing Elias Sports Bureau data, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps notes that he is the “first player in NBA history to score at least 40 points in three consecutive games his team won by three or fewer points.” The Blazers need him to make every insane shot he possibly can.
Of the teams in the bubble, Portland has the highest offensive efficiency rating but the third-worst defensive rating. It’s a perfect cocktail for entertaining games and heroic Lillard performances. Against Brooklyn, we got to see him come up clutch with both his shooting and his defense.
Brooklyn still had a chance to send the Blazers home, but Caris LeVert’s jumper at the buzzer was just off the mark.* As a result, Lillard gets to continue conjuring up his magic inside the bubble.
Lillard and the Blazers play the No. 9–seeded Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday. Due to the somewhat confusing format of the new play-in tournament, Portland only needs to win that one game to secure a place in the first round. Should Memphis win, however, the teams will play again on Sunday, and the winner of that contest goes through. In other words, the Grizzlies have the unenviable task of beating Damian Lillard twice in a row if they want to make the playoffs. Good luck with that.
The eventual winners will face the Los Angeles Lakers. You would expect a No. 1 seed led by LeBron James to waltz into the second round, but the Lakers have struggled down the stretch and are 3–5 inside the bubble. That they may have to play against a literal basketball wizard who’s been granted special powers does not augur a cakewalk. It’s bound to be a roller coaster.
Correction, Aug. 14, 2020: This piece originally misspelled Caris LeVert’s last name.