• Good teams beat bad ones when playing at a level far less than their best. That’s what happened in the Portland Trail Blazers’ 106-104 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Saturday night. Focusing on the Blazers’ lackluster team-wide effort, though, misses the most notable aspect of this crucial victory: Another MVP-type performance from Damian Lillard. Portland’s only All-Star played like it and more on Saturday, dropping 40 points, 10 rebounds and five assists while willing his team to a frantic come-from-behind win against an inferior foe.

    It’s a testament to the Blazers’ execution and offensive versatility that they were able to stick with the Suns early despite losing so badly from beyond the arc. Phoenix, buoyed by four triples from sharp-shooting sub Troy Daniels, went 7-of-16 on triples in the first half, a solid but hardly overwhelming performance. It should be for Portland, though, which shot a dismal 1-of-13 from 3-point range over the game’s first two quarters. Getting outscored by 18 points in one of half of play isn’t a winning formula, and certainly not one the Blazers have grown accustomed to over the past few seasons.

    No matter. Behind 12 points off seven Suns turnovers, 14-of-17 shooting at the free throw line and just two giveaways of its own, Portland managed 55 points in the first half despite making just one 3-pointer. Lillard, just as he did late in Friday night’s win over the Utah Jazz, made up for those team-wide shooting labors by attacking the rim with a vengeance. He scored seven points in the last one minute and 47 seconds of the second quarter, giving the Blazers a five-point lead at intermission.

    It didn’t last long. After jumping out to an early 10-point lead in the third quarter, Portland suddenly found itself with a double-digit deficit of its own just a few minutes later. The Blazers continued shooting cold from deep, and Phoenix swarmed on defense, walling off the paint to force Lillard, McCollum and the rest into a horde of missed jumpers from mid-range. The Suns led 79-67 on a 3-pointer by Devin Booker, who was heating up, with one minute and 45 seconds left in the period, and took a 10-point advantage into the final stanza.

    Any hopes of a comeback victory appeared squashed after Phoenix quelled momentum Portland had built over the first few minutes of the fourth. Booker had it going from beyond the arc and in the paint, frustrating the Blazers’ primary and help defenders with his unique all-court scoring abilities. Not even this jaw-dropping put-back dunk by Lillard, which turned out to be his second most important offensive rebound and score of the game, could get his team out of its funk.

    Portland turned the ball over on its next two possessions, leading to Phoenix taking a 15-point lead with 7:26 left on a pair of freebies by Booker. Unbeknownst to anyone at Talking Stick Resort Arena, with the notable exception of Lillard, that was the last time the Suns would feel comfortable.

    The Blazers got lasting life after a timeout by Jay Triano, with his team up 95-86, yielded a shot-clock violation for the Suns. McCollum hit a step-back jumper on Portland’s next trip down, and after stellar individual defense from Harkless on Booker, Lillard stepped behind the arc for a 3-pointer – the first of two to come in the final stanza. The teams mostly traded baskets from there, with Booker and Lillard taking turns playing hero. The latter’s and-1 tip-in with 2:38 remaining tied the game at 97-97, and set the stage for a frantic final stretch that he made sure he would finish.

    It wouldn’t have been possible without defense, though. A perfectly-timed double-team by Nurkic on Booker forced a wild turnover in crunch time, and the Blazers forced a five-second violation as the Suns attempted to inbound the ball with 20 seconds left and the game tied at 104-104. Stotts initially called for a timeout, but was waived off by an ever-confident Lillard. It was Dame time, on his terms.

    Lillard scored 13 points on 5-of-6 from the field and 2-of-2 from 3-point range over the game’s final five minutes and 37 seconds, erasing a nine-point deficit to give the Blazers their first lead of the fourth quarter with .9 seconds left. By the time Daniels’ ensuing 60-foot heave fell just short of the rim, Portland fans were already celebrating not just a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, but another legendary performance from a player staking his case as one of the league’s true best.

    The MVP race is pretty much over. James Harden will win the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, and rightfully so – his resumé of individual excellence and consistency combined with team success is unmatched. There’s definitely some room to be had below the overwhelming favorite in MVP voting, though, and it’s become increasingly difficult for a national audience to overlook what Lillard has done in the last month. Could he force his way into the conversation over the season’s final seven weeks of play?

    Some superstars, especially those who have been perpetually overlooked throughout their careers, might be concerned with that possibility. Not Lillard. He’s content leading the now fifth-place Blazers to the playoffs, apparently by even the ugliest means necessary.

    This is not a game Portland should have won. Shooting 6-of-30 on threes is a losing recipe for any team in the modern NBA, but especially one driven by the unique shot-making abilities of its star guards. It would have been easy for the Blazers to lay down in the fourth quarter, chalking up a disappointing loss to tired legs and the ball not bouncing their way. But Lillard had other ideas, and received just enough help down the stretch to force them into fruition by the final buzzer.


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