Damian Lillard is the NBA’s Karate Kid

Feature photo – Steve Dykes / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington

My personal highlight of Round 1 of the NBA playoffs was the rivalry that built up between Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. It feels increasingly rare that players are willing to become involved in such personal duels, mostly due to damage limitation to their personal brand.

**Runs away to throw up**

1980s action movies and physical 1990s East Coast playoff basketball. As the famous song goes: these are just two of my favourite things. When I see anything that reminds me of either of these things – I’m in. And I mean, fully in.

Lillard versus Westbrook reminded me of the underdog and coming of age story from the Karate Kid. For the record, a true masterpiece of our time.

On moving to California, and starting at a new high school, Daniel LaRusso runs foul of the ‘popular’ Johnny Lawrence and his friends. He takes a few beatings at the hands of these bullies and realises something has to change.

Former league MVP, triple-double connoisseur, athletic powerhouse… As he demonstrated time and time again in this series, Russell Westbrook has the physicality, swagger and trash talk to take the place of Johnny Lawrence.



Cobra Kai

Fear does not exist in this dojo, does it? NO SENSEI.

Pain does not exist in this dojo, does it? NO SENSEI.

Defeat does not exist in this dojo, does it? NO SENSEI.

In a revealing scene when Daniel is looking for places that might be able to teach him Karate, we learn the Cobra Kai philosophy that underpins his nemesis.

Funnily enough, the philosophy above is also pretty much what I imagine runs through Russell Westbrook’s mind at all times.

One of the reasons Johnny Lawrence was so unlikable was his team of goons, which The Ringer’s Bill Simmons has already (very accurately) profiled as Duke University Basketball fans that follow him around.

Comparably, Westbrook’s teammates couldn’t help but get involved.


Wax on, wax off

In order to learn how to defend himself, Daniel does what any of us would do in the same scenario. He turns to his elderly neighbour.

But this isn’t just any neighbour. Mr Miyagi turns out to be a Karate prodigy, a life coach, a war veteran and someone that is seemingly able to channel divine healing power through his hands at will.

To get Daniel into fighting shape, Mr Miyagi employs incredibly unusual training methods that, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t fly today. He gets him to paint his fence, wash his car and sand the deck in his garden.

What’s a little child labour between friends, right?

What Daniel doesn’t realise, however, is that he’s also picking up the strength, conditioning and unflinching reactions required for Karate.

When Damian Lillard released a video this past offseason of what looked like incredibly unorthodox training methods, everyone laughed. What a joker Dame is. How funny to satire the various internet “player-development” gurus. What maybe even Dame didn’t realise at the time, however, was that he was inadvertently picking up the magic of Miyagi-Do Karate.

You’re the best

One of the most powerful film sequences in the history of Western Civilisation is Karate Kid’s action montage. As Daniel LaRusso discovers his talents on the big stage, he takes increasing confidence and starts to assert himself more and more.

Playing in a smaller market and playing in the most competitive position in the NBA, there is perhaps no better player in the league than Damian Lillard for creating emotive, underdog montages about.

Sweep the leg

John Kreese (the Cobra Kai Sensei) is indisputably one of history’s greatest monsters. A cold disregard for human emotion or decency hides what we imagine is a shadowy past.

After Daniel goes up two points to zero against Johnny in the final match, Kreese looks into his eyes and tells Johnny to “sweep the leg”. With Daniel having already sustained a leg injury, the audience understands this is a shady move.

As the series between the Blazers and Thunder shifted into the Blazers’ favour – this is also pretty much precisely how I imagine the Thunder locker room talks went.

Crane kick

Eventually, Daniel pulls off the victory, with an unexpected technique that catches everyone’s imagination. Just as it looks like he may fall to the unrelenting pressure of his opponent, Daniel rises to the occasion. In a moment of unparalleled triumph, Daniel LaRusso takes the All Valley Karate Championship, the girl (this was the 1980s – gender representation wasn’t quite what we’d hope for today) and the respect of everyone there to see it.

The crane kick has become iconic. It’s instantly recognisable and has been discussed, imitated and replicated countless times.

Dame’s game winner (an unorthodox choice to pull up from that kind of range) to clinch the series also captured the imagination of Portland fans, his peers and anyone who watched the game. Particularly his sister.

Repeatedly ranked by many behind players (such as Russell Westbrook) that he would view himself ahead of, the remainder of these Playoffs provide Lillard with the opportunity to prove that just like Daniel LaRusso, he is the best around.

Feature photo – Steve Dykes / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington