Damian Lillard Thrives in the Bubble
Damian Lillard Thrives in the Bubble
Scott Bamforth knows Damian Lillard better than most. For two seasons, they shared the backcourt as teammates at Weber State. Lillard eventually left as an N.B.A. lottery pick while Bamforth, after breaking Lillard’s school records for 3-point shooting, landed in Spain a year later.
They still keep in touch via text message, Bamforth said, and get together for the occasional off-season workout. But while little about Lillard surprises him anymore — Bamforth knew his former teammate was bound for big things — Bamforth has detected a subtle change in Lillard’s demeanor in recent weeks.
“You can see there’s a difference in him where he truly knows and believes he’s the best player on the court every time he plays,” Bamforth said. “There’s just no doubt in his mind. It doesn’t matter if he’s on the court with LeBron James, or if he’s on the court with James Harden — anyone. And I feel like everyone else knows it, too.”
On Tuesday night, Lillard left his imprint on another opponent. In leading the Portland Trail Blazers to a 100-93 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers (and the aforementioned James) in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series, Lillard collected 34 points and 5 assists. Game 2 of their best-of-seven series is Thursday night.
“The job is far away from being done,” Lillard said, “but I’m proud of our effort.”
Bamforth, 31, watched the game from his home in Tempe, Ariz., where he was preparing for his trip this week to France, where he will play this coming season for Le Mans of LNB Pro A, the country’s top league. Lillard’s exploits have been both familiar and new to Bamforth — somehow even more explosive, somehow even more refined.
They were all on display during one stretch of the fourth quarter, which Lillard kicked off by burying a 30-foot jumper — and dancing to “Blow the Whistle” by the rapper Too Short as he settled into his defensive stance at the other end. A few possessions later, Lillard pulled up from 36 feet to swish a 3-pointer over the top of the Lakers’ Anthony Davis. Then, on Portland’s next trip up the court, he passed out of swarming pressure to Carmelo Anthony, who drained a 3-pointer of his own.
The right shots. The right passes. And another tour de force for a point guard who has fashioned the N.B.A.’s bubble at Walt Disney World into his personal stage.
“He can dance all he wants if he’s going to shoot from half-court and score 30,” the Blazers guard CJ McCollum said.
Lillard’s theatrics punctuated another wild day for the league, which was true to form: Everything about the bubble has been odd and different, and Tuesday was no exception. For the first time since 2003, both No. 1 seeds lost their opening games of the playoffs. The Milwaukee Bucks, the top seed in the East, were the first to take a tumble, losing, 122-110, to the Orlando Magic as all the Bucks not named Giannis Antetokounmpo combined to shoot 41.5 percent from the field.
A few hours later, it was the Lakers’ turn. In fairness, the Trail Blazers are not a typical No. 8 seed. One year removed from advancing to the conference finals, they labored through an injury-marred season before reconvening in Florida for the league’s restart — where Lillard promptly seized control as the bubble maestro.
In eight seeding games, he averaged 37.6 points and 9.6 assists as the Blazers went 6-2 to give themselves a chance of reaching the postseason. They punched their way in by defeating the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday in a play-in game, during which Lillard scored the coolest, most understated 31 points imaginable.
“It just looked so easy for him,” Bamforth said. “At this point, if he doesn’t have 50, it seems like he had a bad game. It’s crazy.”
Long before he became one of the N.B.A.’s most dynamic players, Lillard exerted his influence in less public ways. He, for example, was the main reason that Bamforth, a shooting guard, enrolled at Weber State, a midmajor school in Ogden, Utah, as a junior college transfer. “I knew they had a great point guard,” Bamforth said.
Lillard’s work ethic stood out to Bamforth from the start. The team had a shooting drill called Celtic 50, which involved counting the number of 3-point attempts it took to sink a total of 50. One night, after Lillard needed just 51 attempts, Bamforth stayed in the gym until he matched him. Sure enough, Lillard returned the next day to chase perfection: 50 straight makes without a miss.
“We were always competing against each other,” Bamforth said.
Even after they left school, Bamforth continued to learn from Lillard simply by being in his orbit, he said, and by watching his games on television. Lillard’s profile grew, but Bamforth understood through it all that Lillard was the same person with the same single-minded drive. Nothing about his approach to the game was about to waver.
Bamforth recalled how they were working out a couple of summers ago when Lillard pulled him aside. He had noticed Bamforth’s footwork coming off a screen — Bamforth had dribbled to his right before elevating for a jump shot — and wanted to know everything about how he had done it in microscopic detail.
“He was like, ‘If I can get that pull-up going to my right, it’s over,’” Bamforth recalled him saying. “And I kind of thought I had already learned that move from him. Like, ‘What are you even talking about? You’re Dame Lillard!’ But if he sees something that he can improve, he’s going to ask — and he’ll ask anyone.”
It was a small but significant moment that stuck with Bamforth, because it got at the essence of the Damian Lillard he had always known: his determination, his dedication.
Lillard’s path through the N.B.A. has included its share of postseason disappointments. Nothing has come easily for the Blazers. Now, they have another opportunity in front of them, an unexpected one given the circumstances — but one they earned. Lillard seems intent on making the most of it.
“He’s found another level,” Bamforth said.