Damian Lillard is immune to postseason jitters.
Some sophomores may have folded in their first career NBA playoff game. They may have shrunk in the spotlight or approached the game passively out of fear or anxiety.
But not Lillard. Not this sophomore.
In his first career postseason appearance, the Portland Trail Blazers point guard came up big. He wasn't particularly efficient, but he was effective. He was clutch.
At a time when his team needed him to shine and many of his peers would have bent to the moment's significance, he excelled, helping the Blazers to a Game 1 victory over the Houston Rockets while providing a preview of what he can do when the stakes are highest and the lights are brightest.
Through overtime, Lillard logged nearly 46 minutes, going for 31 points on 9-of-19 shooting. His performance complemented a 46-point outing from teammate LaMarcus Aldridge and ensured the two would join distinguished company, per the Elias Sports Bureau (via SportsCenter):
LaMarcus Alridge & Damian Lillard are 1st teammates w/ 45 Pts & 30 Pts in a playoffs game since Jordan & Pippen in '92. (via @EliasSports)— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 21, 2014
Damian Lillard & LaMarcus Aldridge combined for 77 POINTS last night. That's more than Pacers' starters COMBINED to score in Game 1 (71).— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) April 21, 2014
Aldridge himself was magnificent. Nothing can be taken away from his efforts. He thrived as the focal point of Portland's offense, torching Houston's defense from the first quarter on en route to finishing with 46 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks.
Dating back as far as 1985, only one other player has posted at least 46 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks in a single playoff game. Hakeem Olajuwon did the same in May 1987, nearly three decades ago.
Moral of the story: Aldridge is the man. Without him, the Blazers don't win Game 1.
But Lillard, Aldridge's sidekick, was equally important.
Here was a 23-year-old kid with no playoff experience relentlessly attacking, driving into the heart of Houston's defense without hesitation. His aggression, ability and willingness to absorb contact created easy scoring opportunities. Ten of his 31 points came from the free-throw line, of which he was a frequent visitor (12 attempts).
Lillard paired those 31 points with nine rebounds and five assists, joining exclusive company of his own. Since 2006, only three others players under the age of 24 have tallied at least 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists during a playoff contest—James Harden, Kevin Durant and LeBron James. That's it.
"I've said it all along, I'm just going to be myself," Lillard said, per CBS Sports' Royce Young. "I'm not going to try and do too much. But I'm going to be aggressive. I came out and just played aggressive and let the game come to me and played in the flow and trusted the game would work out."
It worked out. Lillard has the numbers, piece of history and win to prove it.
The Clutch Gene
Oh, and Lillard has the well-documented clutch gene to prove it as well.
In his first-ever playoff appearance, with the game on the line, Lillard was equal parts aggressive and composed, like a veteran who had been there, done that many times before, as Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy suggested:
You would never know this is Damian Lillard's first playoff game.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) April 21, 2014
Down three, with just over 32 seconds remaining in regulation, the Blazers put the ball in Lillard's hands. Like he has so many times before, he delivered.
After catching an inbounds pass from Nicolas Batum, Lillard took one dribble to his right, set his feet, waited patiently for Terrence Jones to sail past and buried a game-tying three.
Did I mention this was Lillard's first playoff game? Because you wouldn't know it looking at this one sequence. He was deliberate and calm, and he took care of business as if the pressure didn't exist.
Overtime was no different. Lillard shot just 1-of-4, but he scored all five of his points in the final 44 seconds, willing the Blazers to victory after Aldridge fouled out.
Lillard scored five of his 31 points in the final 44 seconds, three on a splendid baseline and-1 move, two other after beating his man and drawing a foul at the rim. The Blazers had found themselves on the wrong side of a few whistles, and were trying to survive without their best player. When Aldridge was forced to the bench, along with Robin Lopez who had the Dwight Howard assignment, it essentially appeared the Blazers were done.
But Lillard, in his first postseason game, showed he doesn't just have onions. He has onions made of brass, the size of pumpkins. And in the postseason, that's how to survive. The best offense in a critical spot is to give the ball to a player that can create his own shot, and has the capability to make that shot.
The Blazers had every opportunity to lose Game 1. They fell behind by 13 points early in the fourth quarter. They allowed the Rockets to score the first six points of overtime. A victory was there for the taking if the Rockets could have just stayed the course.
Each time the Rockets looked like they were pulling away late, in came Lillard. He forced defenders to chase him off the three-point line, ran Patrick Beverley ragged and initiated the two-man game with Aldridge to perfection almost wire to wire.
Did I mention this was his first playoff game?
Most of the time, Lillard's performance would be considered typical. By Lillard's standards, this was nothing new. All season long, he was clutch. Not mostly clutch, but completely, ice-running-through-his-veins, no-regard-for-human-life clutch.
In clutch situations during the regular season—defined as the final five minutes of games in which no team is ahead or behind by more than five points—Lillard was sensational. He converted 47.3 percent of his shots overall, and 44.2 percent from deep, according to NBA.com, tallying 148 total points.
So if this were a regular-season contest, Lillard's game-saving accolades would be expected. But this wasn't a regular-season game. It was the playoffs. It was his first playoff game.
Did I mention that?
Forerunner of Excellence
Postseason basketball and Lilllard are made for each other. All we needed was one game to see that.
Since entering the league, Lillard has always prospered when it mattered most, never shying from big moments or the task at hand. The playoffs are like an extension of clutch situations, for which he is made.
None of this promises a series victory for Portland. Yours truly picked against the Blazers, and I'm not one for backing down. The Blazers are a flawed team. But even skeptics can appreciate Lillard, and how far he's come in such a short amount of time.
"That was a questionable last foul call on me," Aldridge said of fouling out, via Young. "I went to Dame and said, 'Take it over.' "
What other veteran star has the luxury of telling a 23-year-old to take over a playoff game, knowing full well that's a legitimate possibility?
Should I take a grilled cheese and ketchup break?
There is no one.
What Lillard did in Game 1 was unique, a rarity. What he does overall isn't any different. He adjusts to the circumstances, and he plays up to the moment.
“It was a Damian Lillard performance," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, per The Oregonian's Jason Quick. "Damian rises to the occasion."
Regular season, postseason—it doesn't matter. It's all the same to Lillard, the playoff novice who is already setting the postseason world on fire.