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Damian Lillard’s MVP case becoming impossible to ignore after another heroic performance in OKC

On Tuesday night, the Portland Trail Blazers saw their 24-point third-quarter lead flipped into a five-point deficit with just over four minutes to play. This is what the NBA defines as clutch time — a game within five points with under five minutes left. They ought to just rename it, officially, Dame Time. 

Over the next three minutes, Lillard, yet again, pulled the Blazers off the ropes before delivering a hail of haymakers to the tune of six 3-pointers — four of his own while collapsing the defense and finding Gary Trent Jr. and Robert Covington for two more as Portland defeated the Thunder 115-104 for its fifth straight win. This step-back over Lu Dort, which effectively sealed the game, was flat out comical. 

Lillard did the same thing to Dallas on Sunday, scoring seven points over a one-minute stretch to snatch a victory from the Mavs, who had erased a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter. This step-back proved to be the game-winner with 32 seconds remaining. 

These sequences serve as a microcosm for the current state of the Blazers: Struggling to stay afloat, rescued by Lillard, who is back to his superhero ways in keeping Portland in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture despite injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic

After Tuesday’s win, Portland sits as the West’s No. 4 seed at 17-10 (that would be good enough for the No. 2 seed in the East, but that’s another gripe for another day). It feels like a minor miracle considering the Blazers are a defensive doormat and McCollum and Nurkic have combined to miss 29 games. It feels like a four-game losing streak is forever lurking around the corner. 

But Lillard just won’t let it happen. The Blazers operate on a razor-thin margin with over half of their games so far meeting the NBA’s “clutch” criteria — again, this means within five points with under five minutes to play. In those clutch minutes, Lillard has now scored 74 total points, tops in the league, while shooting 60 percent from the field, 56 percent from 3 and 100 percent (23-for-23) from the free-throw line. The Blazers, most importantly, have gone 11-3 in those down-to-the-wire games with a plus-40 point differential. 

Kyrie Irving recently whined that all the odds are stacked against the Nets. Yes, he honestly said that. A team with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden is apparently swimming upstream. If Kyrie wants to know what swimming to avoid being sucked down the Western Conference whirlpool actually looks like, he ought to glance over at Lillard’s predicament. With McCollum and Nurkic out, Lillard’s second-best player is Gary Trent Jr. 

If you want to make Lillard’s MVP case, which is becoming impossible to ignore, that would be a good place to start. The only player in the MVP conversation at the moment who is playing with less current talent is Stephen Curry, and even he might have a better top-to-bottom roster than Portland is playing with right now. 

Nikola Jokic is at or near the top of everyone’s MVP list, even though Lillard ranks higher in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, and even as the Nuggets, with a far better roster than Portland’s at the moment, are now two games worse than the Blazers after falling to the Celtics Tuesday night. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, a loaded roster, also have a worse record than the Blazers. Joel Embiid has Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris and the Sixers are still just a half game up on Portland. LeBron James has, well, the Lakers. 

It just can’t be overstated that Lillard is doing this without McCollum, whose absence has been particularly felt. He was having a career year, and with him alongside Lillard, the Blazers were a terror down the stretch of games with two of the best self-creating closers in the world in the same backcourt — No. 5 in both fourth-quarter scoring and point differential. With Lillard going it alone, those ranks, entering Tuesday, had fallen to No. 24 and No. 29, respectively. 

That’s a statistical way of saying the Blazers are making a habit of either letting big third-quarter leads evaporate, as they did in OKC, or digging big fourth-quarter holes. But so far, Lillard has been there to pull them out. Per ESPN Stats and Info, that 3-pointer Lillard hit against Dallas was his 33rd career go-ahead bucket with under a minute to play, which is the most in the league since he arrived in 2012-13. 

There has been a Lillard load-management conversation happening within Blazers circles. In essence, the argument for not pushing Lillard too hard is the Blazers’ season seemed on the verge of death when McCollum and Nurkic went down. But Lillard has kept it alive, 8-5 since McCollum went down and 7-2 over their last nine. 

You cannot sit Lillard now. Over 27 games entering Tuesday, the Blazers have outscored their opponents 3,117 to 3,099. Do the math, and that’s an 18-point differential, or about 0.66 points per game. That’s one bucket. One free throw. Portland’s margin for error is almost nonexistent, and Lillard scores those game-swinging points at a level few players, if any player, can match. 

People will say Lillard burned out in the playoffs last season, and that if Terry Stotts doesn’t want that to happen again this season, he’d better think ahead. For starters, I’m not sure Lillard completely burned out. He took the Lakers out in Game 1. The Lakers were just too much in the end. 

But if he did burn out some, I would more attribute that to the two-week-Michael Johnson-200-meter sprint he had to go on just to get Portland into the play-in series vs. Memphis. If the Blazers can keep winning at a decent rate until McCollum and Nurkic return, they may find themselves with enough cushion to not have to red-line Lillard down the stretch while ending up with a more winnable first-round series. 

From there, you take your chances. And with a healthy Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic, and a defense with the personnel to perhaps play above its statistical profile depending on the playoff matchup, they aren’t the worst chances in the world. 

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