For once, the clock did not strike Dame Time.
In a Saturday afternoon game the Portland Trail Blazers could not afford to lose as they fight for a Western Conference playoff seed, Damian Lillard came up short. With the Blazers down by one point to the Los Angeles Clippers with 18.6 seconds left in the contest, Lillard went to the free-throw line with a chance to tie or take the lead—and missed both shots. L.A. ended up winning 122-117.
Two Clippers players who have been on the receiving end of Lillard's two biggest postseason triumphs didn't miss an opportunity to celebrate. That led to the kind of heated back-and-forth that the NBA's bubble near Orlando, Florida, has thus far been missing—the kind that drives the league's best rivalries.
Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, who did not play Saturday, was heard shouting "DOLLA Time" after Lillard's free-throw misses, a reference to Lillard's rap name, Dame D.O.L.L.A. After the final buzzer, George mimicked Lillard's hand wave from last year's first-round walk-off three that Lillard hit in George's face, when George was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"PG? Let me just say this," Lillard said after the game. "I know what happened. I expect myself to make those free throws, and I didn't when my team needed it, which was a failure for me that I can accept. But asking me about Patrick Beverley … I've sent him home before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So they know.
"The reason they reacted like that is because it's what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect. And it just shows what I've done at a high clip more times than not. So I'm not offended by it. If anything, it should just show you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously."
Shortly after Lillard's media availability, George left a comment on a Bleacher Report Instagram post. George also posted an Instagram story seemingly blaming his shoulder injury for Lillard's game-winner in last year's playoffs. Lillard responded by pointing out the number of times George has changed teams, calling the Clippers "chumps" and accusing PG-13 of "running from the grind."
It was all just a reminder of how in the era of increased player movement, the most heated rivalries are between players, not teams.
Beverley was a member of the Houston Rockets in 2014, when Lillard hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer in Game 6 of the first round to give Portland its first playoff series win in 14 years and send Houston home sooner than expected. Beverley was traded, along with Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and others, to the Clippers in June 2017 in a blockbuster deal for Chris Paul.
Two years later, the Rockets traded CP3 to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook, just days after the Thunder sent George to the Clippers following Kawhi Leonard's commitment to L.A. in free agency.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti's decision to tear down his roster and trade two superstars came with a realization that OKC's run had reached the end of its shelf life—a realization caused in part by the Thunder's disappointing playoff exit sealed by the Lillard three that George infamously called a "bad shot."
Now, the tables have turned. George's and Beverley's Clippers are an undisputed title contender, while Lillard's Blazers are barely hanging on to a shot at the playoffs.
Sadly, it's almost impossible for this drama to continue into the playoffs. Even if the Blazers outlast the other play-in teams and make the eighth seed, they'd have to upset the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and beat whichever of the Houston-Utah-Oklahoma City group emerges as their second-round opponent. Nobody outside of Lillard and Charles Barkley thinks that's a serious possibility.
So this late-regular-season trash talk will have to do. Points were made on all sides. George is right that he was severely diminished by shoulder injuries during that first-round series (he had surgery on both shoulders during the offseason). Lillard is right that he's gotten the better of both George and Beverley when they've met in the playoffs.
He's also right that George embodies the team-up ethos he doesn't seem to have much respect for. As for George's initial comment that the Blazers' run in the bubble will end early? Well, yes, that's probably how it's going to go.
And getting to the playoffs became tougher with Saturday's loss, which put Portland a game-and-a-half behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed and just a half-game up on the 10th-place San Antonio Spurs. The toughest part of their schedule is past them: They'll face the Ben Simmons-less Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, the struggling Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday and the Brooklyn Nets' skeleton crew Thursday.
They can't afford defeat in any of those games. They shouldn't have lost to the Clippers, either, in a game in which they led most of the way against a team without Leonard, Beverley and Harrell.
Lillard had a chance to seal the game and didn't. He knows that can't happen again.
"I've had some moments in my career where I was expected to do one thing at the end of the game and I didn't," Lillard said. "I'm in big situations at the end of the game a lot, and I've had success a lot in those situations. That's just the way it goes.
"Sometimes you've got to come up short, and you've got to fail in those moments. I know that that's a possibility because I'm in that situation all the time. So when it does happen, that's not gonna discourage me or make me any less confident. If anything, I'm looking at it, and I'm pretty sure next time it's gonna go the other way."
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and co-hosts the Bulls vs. Blazers podcast. He is currently based in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.