On Tuesday evening, in a game that was a must-win for the Portland Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard put on a master class in basketball dominance. Then he put on a master class in setting and controlling the narrative.
In the closing seconds of a 134-131 victory over the Dallas Mavericks, Lillard was captured by TNT's cameras telling the sidelines to "put some respect on my f--king name."
He had just knocked down a deep three that got one of the luckiest bounces in the history of basketball. The shot matched his career high of 61 points and tied a game Portland would go on to win, putting them in the driver's seat for the eighth seed in the Western Conference as the eight seeding games in the Florida bubble head into their final three days.
In his postgame virtual media availability, Lillard was asked who he was talking to.
His response: "Whoever had something to say."
When pressed, he elaborated: "It was just a bunch of people on the opposite side, that press row area. Those are the people who usually have something to say, or put out what they put out. So it was just in that direction."
This wouldn't be the first time a superstar has used the vague notion of "the media" as motivation, even someone as universally well-respected in all corners of the NBA world—among teammates, opponents, coaches and, yes, the media—as Lillard.
It was the perfect capper for a four-day stretch that began with a rare instance of Lillard coming up short in a Saturday loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, followed by a heated Instagram back-and-forth with Patrick Beverley and Paul George. He responded the next night by dropping 51 points in a bounce-back win over the Philadelphia 76ers. He spent part of the following day arguing with Skip Bayless on Twitter.
Maybe that's who he thought was on media row as he closed out Tuesday's career night.
Lillard was then asked about a series of Tuesday morning tweets from close friend and former teammate Earl Watson, which suggested he had reached out to Watson after receiving an offer to join a superteam before he signed a four-year, $196 million extension with Portland last summer.
"I wouldn't even say it was somebody offering me to go to another team," Lillard said. "It was just something that was constantly being mentioned to me, like 'You should do this, you should go here.' And I just said, 'That's not what I wish to do.' Where I was drafted, I live there comfortably, my family is comfortable, it's a great organization. … The grass ain't always greener. For me, I feel like we can build something and get it done in Portland. And I really believe that. I don't just say it to say it."
Everyone knows all of that by now.
Lillard's loyalty to Portland and desire to buck the trend of superstars leaving small markets to team up with other stars has become one of the defining things about his public persona. But on the night of another heroic effort, in which he became the first Blazer ever with back-to-back 50-point games and the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to put up three 60-point games in the same season, when Lillard's approval rating has never been higher, it can't hurt to remind people of that loyalty, too. You can never have too much good press.
It's all upside now for Lillard.
The Blazers' final seeding game Thursday is against the extremely short-handed Brooklyn Nets, who are locked into the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference and have no reason to play any of their remaining starters. If they win that game, they'll clinch the eighth seed, meaning they'd only have to win one game in this weekend's play-in series to set up a trip back to the playoffs and a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Even if they lose, it would take a catastrophic series of events for Portland not to at least earn a spot in the play-in tournament, and Lillard has to like his chances in that environment. Maybe you haven't heard, but he has a bit of a track record in such situations.
If they do face the Lakers in the first round, expect a good amount of buzz for the Blazers as a first-round upset pick. With starters Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins healthy, they entered the bubble having already acquired the coveted label of "the team nobody wants to face," and Lillard's heroics over the past 10 days have done nothing to disabuse anyone who was inclined to pick them of that notion.
If they do somehow beat the Lakers and advance in the playoffs after starting the Florida games 3.5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies, it will be the greatest playoff victory of Lillard's career, which already has two all-time moments. And if they don't, he'll still be on the shortlist for the just-announced Best Player of the Restart award.
He will, at worst, be named second-team All-NBA and probably get more down-ballot MVP votes than usual for someone whose team was out of the playoffs at the time of the voting. The restart has been incredible for his reputation, which was already high to begin with.
And whenever Portland's season does end, whether in the play-in games or in the postseason, don't be surprised if George or Beverley says something Lillard takes into next season.
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.