Damian Lillard hit a deep three-pointer at the buzzer to win a first-round playoff series. And then he did it again five years later — only deeper. Much deeper.
The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, 118-115, Tuesday at the Moda Center, eliminating their Northwest Division rivals from the postseason in five games. It was an improbable victory with an impossible ending.
Lillard sealed a remarkable 50-point night with a 37-foot missile over Paul George’s outstretched right hand. As the clock ticked under 10 seconds with the score tied at 115, Portland’s all-star point guard used a head fake and a side step to clear a shooting window. He then released the shot with less than two seconds remaining, and it rattled home as time expired.
The series-clinching buzzer-beater led to pandemonium in the building, as Lillard was mobbed by his teammates, and it brought back memories of his game-winner to eliminate the Houston Rockets in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
Before Portland’s mosh pit commenced, though, Lillard took a moment to wave at the Thunder after a tense series filled with trash talk.
“There’s been a lot of back and forth, a lot of talk,” Lillard said. “That [shot] was the last word. That was having the last word.”
While Portland made a point to maintain its focus in Games 4 and 5 after a testy Game 3 loss in Oklahoma City, Lillard made it clear he had been compiling mental notes. Russell Westbrook had called him “too small” and executed his “rock the baby” celebration after posting up Lillard, while Dennis Schroder had mocked Lillard’s “Dame Time” celebration by pointing to his own wrist late in Game 3.
“I was just waving goodbye to them,” Lillard said of his Game 5 celebration. “After Game 3, Dennis Schroder was out there pointing to his wrist. They were out there doing all these celebrations and doing all this stuff. We kept our composure. After one win, that’s what they decided to do. What we want to do is win four games. And when we win those four games, there’s not going to be anything to talk about.”
Lillard shot 17-of-33 from the field, 10-of-18 from deep, and 6-of-8 from the free throw line, calling it the best game of his seven-year career. The 50 points marked his personal playoff career-high, the Blazers’ playoff franchise record, and the most points scored in a game during the 2019 NBA playoffs. On the night, Lillard played 45 minutes and also tallied seven rebounds, six assists and three steals.
“Damian’s performance was probably the best performance I’ve seen in person,” said Terry Stotts, who began his NBA coaching career as an assistant coach in 1994 and got his first head job in 2002.
Lillard’s three-pointer capped a 13-2 closing push by the Blazers in the final 3:08. Everything went wrong for the Thunder during the closing stretch, as Westbrook and George each committed turnovers, Westbrook missed three shots, and George missed a pair of free throws.
Oklahoma City’s stars were left in disbelief as the franchise was eliminated in the first round for the third straight time since Kevin Durant’s 2016 departure. Westbrook, who finished with a 29-point, 11-rebound, 14-assist triple double, called the fourth-quarter collapse “very disappointing.”
George, seemingly stunned by Lillard’s game-winner, insisted that his defense on the play had been sufficient by any normal standard.
“That’s a bad shot,” said George, who scored a team-high 36 points and grabbed nine rebounds. “I don’t care what anybody says. That’s a bad shot. But, hey, he made it. That story won’t be told, that it’s a bad shot. You live with that.”
Five years ago, in Game 6 against the Rockets, Lillard received an inbounds pass from Nicolas Batum with 0.9 seconds on the clock and buried a catch-and-shoot three-pointer to give Portland a 99-98 victory. On that shot, Lillard clapped his hands, took the pass on the move, and pulled up from 25-feet at the left angle over Rockets forward Chandler Parsons.
“Happens to the best of us,” Parsons wrote on Twitter Tuesday, following Lillard’s deja vu dagger.
Batum added: “That dude is crazy. What a shot by Dame. And I didn’t get the assist on that one.”
To the marksman himself, the shots weren’t identical because the time/score situations weren’t identical. In 2014, Portland was down by two and would have lost if Lillard had missed. In 2019, the score was tied and Portland would have headed to overtime with a miss.
“It was a little bit different,” Lillard said. “In that  game, we were down by two. There was less time. That time I actually broke the play. Not a lot of people know that. All the guys were out there telling me to run to the ball. Tonight, this was how it was set up. It was just set up different.”
Stotts noted that he felt comfortable with Lillard’s decision to shoot from so far out because Portland was gaining momentum, because Westbrook and George had five fouls apiece, and because the score was tied. Under those circumstances, overtime wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world.
Instead, Lillard sent the Thunder home with another shot — and a wave — that will be replayed on highlight reels for years.
“When it left my hands, I felt good about it,” Lillard said. “I was standing there looking at the rim, and I was like, ‘This is a comfortable range.’ [George] was a little bit off of me, and there was enough space for me to raise up and shoot it for game. At the last second, he stepped towards me a little bit, and I [decided] to pound dribble, sidestep, and raise up. I had to let it fly and shoot the ball high to give it a chance, and that’s what I did.”