Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers’ hopes rest on Damian Lillard’s shoulders

“That’s a bad shot. I don’t care what anybody says, that’s a bad shot.”

Those were the words of Paul George in a 2019 post-game press conference, after Damian Lillard had just hit a 37-foot buzzer beater over his outstretched arm. That shot not only gave the Portland Trail Blazers a 118-115 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it also won them the first-round playoff series the two teams were contesting.

What’s considered a bad shot for some, may not be considered a bad shot for Damian Lillard. It also doesn’t matter if it’s a bad shot, Lillard’s going to take it. And he’s going to make it. Lillard’s habit of stepping up when the Blazers need him most led to the rise of ‘Dame Time’.

He has a history of putting the entire team on his back, as his shot against the Thunder wasn’t even the first playoff series winning, buzzer beating three-pointer he’s made in his career.

But unfortunately for Portland, it seems he’s going to have to put the team on his back earlier than usual this season.

On the 15 January it was announced Portland’s starting center, Jusuf Nurkic, would be out for at least six weeks after having surgery on the wrist he fractured against the Indiana Pacers. Then, on the 19 January, Portland announced that CJ McCollum had suffered a small hairline fracture in his left foot against the Atlanta Hawks, and would be re-evaluated in four weeks. Another starter, Derrick Jones Jr., has also missed time recently with a foot injury.

After the Hawks game, the Trail Blazers were 8-5 and fourth in the Western Conference. This was partly due to the play of McCollum, who was averaging 26.7 points and five assists per game this season, whilst shooting 44.1 percent from three-point range – all career highs. McCollum himself called it “terrible timing”, as it seemed certain he was to be named a Western Conference All-Star for the first time in his career.

Nurkic was averaging a much less glamorous 9.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in the 2020-21 season, although he had been honest about his struggles outside of basketball and his lack of fitness. But the Blazers had won four in a row before Nurkic’s injury, and much of that success was due to him rounding into shape and recapturing his form.

Regardless of how either was playing, losing starters to injuries deals a massive blow to any team trying to make the playoffs. These injuries have seen various players step into Portland’s starting line-up over the last eight games, including Enes Kanter, Nassir Trent, Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood.

This line-up inconsistency can only hurt a team that’s struggled on the defensive end all year, and who currently have the third worst defensive rating in the entire NBA at 116.6. In fact, in the eight games since Nurkic’s injury, Portland have given up over 120 points five times. However, they do have the sixth best offense in the league (per 100 possessions) and attempt the most field goals per game in the entire NBA. The offense will have to be one factor that keeps Portland in the mix whilst they wait for players to return from injury.

The other factor has to be Damian Lillard.

And against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night, Lillard put the Portland Trail Blazers on his back yet again. Not only did he finish with 44 points and nine assists, but he also hit two trademark three-pointers in the final ten seconds. The first was deep on the right wing and brought the Blazers within two points. The second was the buzzer beating game winner.

Before that, he even had a less dramatic game winning play against Atlanta. Late in the fourth quarter he drew a charge on Trae Young, which sealed the eventual 112-106 victory. This isn’t anything new to Lillard, as his myriad of clutch shots speak volumes about his ability to step up for Portland when it matters most.

“It’s no secret that I have a lot of responsibility,” Lillard told reporters after the game against Chicago, referring to Portland’s injury crisis and his role as the team’s best player.

But Lillard loves that responsibility. You can see it in his play.

Before the Atlanta game, and McCollum’s injury, Lillard was averaging 26.9 points per game on 44.2 percent field goal shooting. Since the injury, his averages have jumped to 32.4 points per game on 47.1 percent field goal shooting. During this stretch, only Bradley Beal has attempted more field goals, and no other player has attempted more three-pointers. Lillard’s usage percentage since mid-January has gone up to 31.2, which ranks as tenth highest in the NBA over that period.

Portland’s dependence on Lillard is also shown in their wins and losses. In their 11 wins he averages 33.4 points, five made threes and 49.6 percent field goal shooting. In their nine losses, those averages drop to 23.9 points, 2.8 made threes and 39.6 percent field goal shooting. So much of what the Trail Blazers do well goes through Damian Lillard.

Portland are the best pick and roll team in the league this season, in terms of points per possession, and Lillard’s chemistry with Enes Kanter in the two-man game was clear to see in the win over Chicago. But even Lillard knows that the injuries have changed how the team has to play.

“If we’re a healthy team I can say ‘Nurk, post up,’ and I can throw it to Nurk and he can score on the block or make a play,” Lillard said after the Chicago game. “Or I can go off the ball and CJ can have 35 or 40.”

But Nurkic and McCollum aren’t there. Lillard is.

His teammates and Portland’s coaching staff know how lucky they are to have him, with almost all of them praising how he’s acted during this injury crisis – with compliments ranging from “mentally tough” to “he’s a killer”.

Terry Stotts was asked to describe Lillard’s ability to take over games when needed. Even though he’s seen it so many times before, Portland’s head coach still struggled.

“It’s easy to see, but it’s hard to describe,” Stotts said. “It’s innate. It’s god given. He’s born with it, and you can’t teach it.”

You might not be able to describe it, but there are plenty of examples. In the bubble last season, he carried a battered Blazers squad to the eight seed, and was named MVP of the Seeding Games. Whilst he was there, he argued with Paul George and Patrick Beverley about switching teams to chase championships. Lillard has always remained loyal and dedicated to Portland. He called them “chumps” and claimed they were “running from the grind”.

As far as the Portland Trail Blazers are concerned, it’s a good job Damian Lillard has never run from the grind. They need Dame Time now as much as they ever have before.