Despite the decision for the number one pick being the worst kept secret in the NBA, college sensation Zion Williamson was still overwhelmed when the New Orleans Pelicans opted to take him first at the 2019 draft.
As Damian Lillard pushes hard off his right foot, springing and vaulting his body smoothly and powerfully to the left, he rises up, fading away.
He proceeds to lightly urge the ball off his fingertips towards the swishing net, one gets the feeling that somewhere the creators of basketball must be watching and thinking to themselves: yes, this is what we had in mind.
Lillard is quintessential. He is iconic, a perfect basketball image that moves in a series of still photographs. He and Stephen Curry exist in their own universe – one where their gravity extends to half-court, where typically calm moments for defences are filled with horror and grave anticipation.
They’re different players with the same defining masterpiece: the ability to pull-up from anywhere at any time. There is no distance from which they shoot where you feel like the ball won’t go in.
Champions come to life in Game 7s, but also in random February games in Phoenix. Over and over again, especially in Portland’s current nine-game, season-altering (and potentially franchise-altering) winning streak, Lillard has dragged the Blazers to victories that shouldn’t have been.
He beat Phoenix because he decided to, he got hot and ended the Wolves, and in his most absurd display yet he stole a win from the Lakers with magic and insanity.
The win in LA was one of the season’s obscure epics. It was one of ‘those games’, where the road team leads the whole way then the home underdog rides a sudden hot streak in the fourth quarter to victory. With the Lakers clicking and the Blazers fading, down double digits with five minutes left, the conclusion was on its path to foregone.
Perhaps the defining trait of a superstar is their ability to make one inevitability quickly become the opposite inevitably. So Dame did at Staples, hitting four spectacular threes on consecutive possessions to reverse the game’s course and give Portland an ascendancy they wouldn’t relinquish.
Each three was its own impossibility. The early shot-clock, deep contested pull-up. The even deeper uncontested three that is only uncontested because there’s no danger of anyone shooting from that far gone. The isolation, stop-on-a-dime step-back on the left wing. The pump-fake, stutter step and shuffle to the left with peerless footwork before rising up and sinking the dagger.
It was all vintage Dame, a ‘best of’ all of a sudden taking place on a studio album. All the hallmarks were there, the neck always elevated and coolly surveying, the back arched, the unstoppable trigger of a shooting motion forever ready and waiting.
Before 2018, Lillard was an undeniably cool, undeniably flawed superstar. This year something has changed. Since January 10, when he finally shook off a lingering injury, Lillard has been the best guard in the NBA. He’s at 29.2 points per game, on 48-40-89 shooting splits. He’s been outrageous.
In this process of this outrageousness, he’s dragged an aggressively unremarkable collection of teammates towards something special. Beyond CJ McCollum – who is marvellous, but not nearly as overwhelming as Lillard – this is a limited group of battlers. But empowered by Lillard and McCollum, all the battlers have to do is battle.
The result is a team whose fourth best player is either Shabazz Napier, Al-Farouq Aminu or Ed Davis having the best record in the West after Golden State and Houston. But Shabazz doesn’t matter when you’ve got Dame.