It is not an exaggeration to say that Damian Lillard’s heroics in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s Blazers-Suns tilt rescued both teams: the Blazers are smack in the middle of the West’s dense playoff pack; meanwhile the Suns, had they won, would’ve gone from having the worst win percentage in the NBA—prime tanking position—to something like fifth-worst. Both organizations woke up this morning pleased as punch.
We have for sure reached the part of the season where playoff teams in both conferences have to beat tanking teams. Last night, across the NBA, every single game was won by the team with the better record; the better team should always be favored, but down the stretch the teams with an incentive to win will step up their efforts, while the teams who have incentive to lose, well, let’s just say they won’t be heartbroken by a road loss to, say, the Timberwolves. The eight worst teams in the NBA are by no means historically bad, but the gravity of the draft lottery is pulling them more forcefully by the day.
Still. Though it came against the NBA’s worst team, and a team with a truly crummy group of young players—and thus a team with huge incentive to lose their way to the top of the draft—what Damian Lillard did in Phoenix last night was really something: his Blazers fell behind the Suns during a disjointed, discouraging third quarter, and fell behind in the fourth quarter by as much as 15 points, at around the eight minute mark. But that fourth quarter belonged to Lillard: he scored 19 points in the frame, and hauled his team up onto his shoulders and over the finish line, in incredible fashion:
While we’re here, the Suns aren’t exactly like some of the other tanking teams around the league, for two reasons: the first is interim head coach Jay Triano, who entered the season as an assistant to Earl Watson; and the second is Elfrid Payton, who entered the season as a member of the Orlando Magic, and will become a free agent at the end of this season. Triano has zero job security beyond the remaining 21 games on Phoenix’s schedule, and so he has significant personal incentive to coach the Suns well, and demonstrate that he can guide an NBA team to victories, even if those wins might ultimately damage this franchise’s draft lottery odds. Payton, simply, is playing for a contract—incredible as this may seem, Payton was the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, but his career has now cratered to the point where it would not be especially surprising to find him playing in China or the NBA’s developmental league before he signs his third NBA contract.
So the Suns organization may value losses more than wins, but the Suns players on the floor still want to do well, and their coach almost certainly wants them win. And they had this win! Even down the stretch, even after Lillard dragged the Blazers back to even, Devin Booker made a couple huge buckets inside of the final two minutes to push the Suns back out in front. But each time, his heroics were matched by Lillard: Booker dribbled into a wing three to snag the lead; two possessions later, Lillard used two screens to force a pair of switches, until he was being guarded by a stupidly sagging Alex Len, and rose up for game-tying three of his own; with about 35 seconds left on the clock and the score tied, Booker blew past Moe Harkless for a driving layup; at the other end, Lillard used his umpteenth hesitation first-step move of the game to put defender Shaquille Harrison in recovery mode, then coolly dropped in a tough step-back jumper from the elbow. For his final act, Lillard beat Payton (a very tough on-ball defender) going left, then finished through and over like four helping Suns defenders, to put the Blazers up two with less than a second on the clock.
Heroics are heroics—the Blazers were supposed to win, but they also did win, and they did win because Damian Lillard went absolutely bonkers in the fourth quarter, and had an answer for every big bucket down the stretch. The win moved the Blazers into fifth in the West. The Suns should send him a damn flower arrangement.