• Damian Lillard‘s third All-Star Game was his best yet. Alas, it didn’t end in victory. Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145 in a spirited, competitive All-Star Game that came down to its final moments. Maybe if Team Stephen coach Mike D’Antoni had kept the Portland Trail Blazers superstar on the floor, Sunday’s contest would have been over before crunch time.

    Lillard first entered the game with 5:45 left in the first quarter, replacing James Harden as Team Stephen’s primary ball handler. He wasted little time getting involved, hoisting up a deep triple from the left wing that missed everything but the waiting hands of teammate Draymond Green. Fortunately, that ugly airball wasn’t a harbinger of things to come. Lillard first got on the board with a jumper from the elbow, after walking into a long offensive rebound. He finished the first quarter with four points, two rebounds and one assist, helping Team Stephen to a 42-31 lead.

    Lillard remained on the floor for the first few minutes of the second quarter, too. His first triple of the night, a 31-footer, came from the All-Star logo that stretched just past both sides of halfcourt.

    The Blazers’ star mostly played bystander from there, missing another long 3-pointer as Team LeBron made a run. He exited the game with 8:09 remaining before intermission, finishing the first half with seven points, two rebounds and one assist on 3-of-6 from the field, with his squad up 78-76.

    All that rest, which included a lengthy halftime performance on the floor and typical amounts of broadcast commentary, did Lillard well. Starting the second half for Team Stephen alongside Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Green and Joel Embiid, Lillard came out aggressive. After misfiring on a designed triple on the opening possession of the third quarter, Lillard scored seven points and found Embiid for a 3-pointer before Curry subbed in for him with 6:04 left in the third quarter. That was a crucial stretch of the game, too, one that kept Team LeBron’s momentum in relative check despite Team LeBron coach Dwane Casey beginning the second half with his starters.

    Lillard’s new All-Star career-high, which was previously 11 points, came on a mid-range jumper midway through the third period. Starting the final stanza, he pushed it higher and higher – while also padding Team Stephen’s lead. Lillard had seven more points over the first few minutes of the fourth quarter, and gave his squad a 129-120 advantage on another 3-pointer, his third of the night, with 7:52 left.

    His 20-foot jumper less than a minute later extended Team Stephen’s lead to 13 points, its highest since the first quarter. Unfortunately for Portland fans, and those rooting against Team LeBron, Lillard didn’t have the chance to do what he does best late. He exited for good with six minutes and 36 seconds remaining, with Team Stephen up 133-120, a lead it relinquished entirely after late-game heroics from, who else, LeBron James, named MVP after scoring 29 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and doling out eight assists.

    Lillard entered the All-Star break playing the best basketball of his career. After scoring a team-high tying 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting and registering an All-Star best plus-minus of plus-18, it’s never been more obvious that Lillard belongs among basketball’s true luminaries. Here’s hoping he not only continues to do so for the season’s remainder, but in All-Star Games to come – perhaps even in Portland come 2022.

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