Damian Lillard's Epic Game 5 Shot vs. Thunder, One Year Later

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2020

PORTLAND, OREGON - APRIL 23: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers waves goodbye to the Oklahoma City Thunder after hitting a last second 37 foot game winner to end Game Five of the Western Conference quarterfinals during the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center on April 23, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. The Blazers won 118-115.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

PORTLAND, Ore. — In just a few seconds a year ago, Damian Lillard exorcised several years' worth of postseason demons and elevated his standing among the NBA's elite.

With time expiring in Game 5 of the Portland Trail Blazers' first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Lillard pulled up for a deep three over Paul George, breaking a tie, sending the Thunder home and giving the Blazers their first playoff series victory in three years.

It wasn't the first time Lillard had hit a walk-off three to win a series—he hit a similar shot over Chandler Parsons in 2014, his second year in the league, to advance Portland to the second round for the first time since 2000. Both were special shots, and both are now immortalized with murals in the back hallway of the Moda Center. 

But the shot against the Thunder was bigger.

It was bigger because Lillard's head-to-head battle with Russell Westbrook was the most compelling subplot of the series, and because after two straight first-round sweeps in 2017 and 2018, he needed to reassert himself to the greater NBA-watching public as one of the Western Conference's elite point guards.

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He did that and then some with that shot, which kicked off the Blazers' first trip to the Western Conference Finals in almost two decades. In a now-iconic image that will be used in league promos for years to come, he waved goodbye to the Thunder bench, silencing a series' worth of trash talk with a shot that George later referred to as a "bad shot." For anyone else, it would have been.

On the one-year anniversary of Lillard's game-winner, Bleacher Report polled several players and beat writers on their memories of the night and on what it meant for Lillard and the Blazers.

"The sound was deafening."

Erik Horne (Thunder beat writer, The Athletic): "I certainly wasn't optimistic the Thunder would win even if they made it to overtime. The Thunder led by 15 points with 7:45 left. Once they gave up that lead, I was anticipating the Blazers winning. This was the culmination of the Thunder's uninspired play post-All-Star break. A lot of national media picked the Thunder to beat the Blazers. I knew better.

"I just didn't know Damian Lillard would do it like that. I remember thinking Billy Donovan should have trapped him instead of leaving Paul George on an island. I also still get trusting the best perimeter defender in the league that season 40 feet from the rim. There's no right answer because Lillard had been splitting the double all series with ease.

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 23:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers reacts to shooting the game-winning three point basket against the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Five of Round One of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 23, 2019 at the Moda Center
Zach Beeker/Getty Images

"The sound was deafening. I've never experienced a louder arena moment. Jerami Grant and Terrance Ferguson stood there consoling each other in tears. If Grant and Ferguson make one more shot each in Game 1, maybe the series is different.

"Probably not. The Thunder were arrogant for no reason in that series considering how they'd played the final two months of the season. Lillard's dagger was just."

"What I loved was the drama."

Anne Peterson (Blazers beat writer, Associated Press): "I'd like to say that I totally expected Lillard to hit that shot. I mean, he had before, with a buzzer-beating three against Houston back in 2014. But honestly, when they say 'It's the playoffs, anything can happen,' it's really true—lots of weird stuff always happens.

"What I loved was the drama: Dame's look directly into the camera and waving goodbye to the Thunder bench. He made that night incredibly easy as a reporter because there was so much to write about. While we all remember the shot, Lillard had 50 points that night and 10 three-pointers.  

"Lillard really blesses the reporters who cover him: After that 2014 series-clinching three-pointer, he grabbed the microphone and yelled 'Rip City.' 

PORTLAND, OR - MAY 2:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers walks off the court against the Houston Rockets after Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs on May 2, 2014 at the Moda Center in Portland, Orego
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

"After all the deadlines had passed that night against Oklahoma City, I found myself thinking about Brandon Roy and the night in 2011 he staged one of the biggest comebacks in the team's playoff history, when he scored 18 fourth-quarter points and the team erased a 23-point deficit for an 84-82 first-round victory over Dallas. And he did it on bad knees. 

"Roy also had that memorable winning three-pointer against the Rockets in a 2008 regular-season game. 'I saw it fall in the net and I was like, "Wow, that was an unbelievable shot,"' he said afterward. 'It was a blessing from above.'

"Which of Lillard's shots were bigger? I think I have to say Houston because it got Portland to the conference semifinals for the first time in 14 years. I think we'll also look back at that shot as kind of the start of his legend in Portland, although I don't like to get too caught up in hyperbole."

"Clearly Westbrook respects Lillard as well."

Jon Hamm (Thunder beat writer, 107.7 FM The Franchise): "The origin of the Russell Westbrook-Damian Lillard rivalry isn't crystal clear. Perhaps it's been around since Lillard entered the league in 2012. But it became noticeable one December night in 2016.

"The Thunder trailed the Blazers midway through the second quarter. A Westbrook-led Thunder fast break saw the future MVP barrel toward the basket, willing to take then-Blazers center Mason Plumlee into the rim with him. Westbrook missed, but center Steven Adams inhaled the offensive rebound and dunked to cap the possession. Portland called a timeout, and while Lillard bent over to retrieve the basketball, Westbrook inexplicably kicked the ball away from him and appeared to go out of his way to bump the Blazers star. A modern-day NBA fight broke out, which means that both players glared at each other and exchanged words while others attempted to intervene.

"That made future matchups between the Northwest Division rivals must-see TV. The two teams met three more times that season. Westbrook dropped 42, 45 and 58 points on the Blazers in those games, though Portland won two of those games.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - APRIL 19: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stands behind Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers during game three of the Western Conference quarterfinals at Chesapeake Energy Arena on April 19, 2019 in O
Cooper Neill/Getty Images

"The rivalry between the two has continued to simmer ever since. When the two teams met up in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, Lillard thoroughly outplayed the Thunder star and sent OKC into the offseason after five games, a nearly 40-foot shot serving as the proverbial kill shot.

"After the Blazers played the Rockets this season, who are now Westbrook's employer, Lillard posted a picture on Instagram of the two rivals hugging. 'They confuse competing with hate,' Lillard wrote, 'when it's ruthless vs ruthless.' Clearly Westbrook respects Lillard as well, considering the amount of energy Russ consistently put into those matchups."

"...one of the craziest shots I've ever witnessed in my life..."

Rodney Hood (Blazers forward): "That series was so chippy. They obviously were a very talented team. With Russ and PG, they were a very good defensive team. I felt our confidence grow.

"Dame really took a step, in my eyes. I'd watched him from afar for a while. He was always one of the top-tier point guards, but in that series he really solidified that and stamped that when he went up against another great point guard and proved that he was the best. That shot was one of the craziest shots I've ever witnessed in my life, on TV or in person. 

"The fact that he's done it two times is sick. That was a special moment to be a part of."


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.