With all due respect to Devin Booker, MJ, er, TJ Warren, and everyone else in the NBA Bubble, there’s one player who is my runaway MVP for the playoff preamble: Damian Lillard.
Dame has put up two monster performances since his late-game folly against the Clippers—a 51-point showing against the Sixers, and then a bonkers, no-holds-barred 61-point barrage against the Mavericks. Lillard’s scoring binge during the seeding round is reason enough for him to be—at the very least—in the running for Bubble MVP. It’s the stakes attached to every single one of his performances that should make him the winner.
The Blazers arrived in Orlando with the most to prove of the teams trying to sneak into the postseason. They aren’t an upstart having a season wildly beyond their expectations like the Grizzlies. They aren’t a young squad with nothing to lose like the Suns. They didn’t come in missing a key guy like the Spurs. Portland entered this season as a team coming off a disappointing showing in last year’s conference finals, it was beset by injuries during the normal season, and then gifted a rare second chance thanks to the restart. Lillard has made the most of the opportunity with a full cast around him.
After his explosion against Dallas, Dame is now averaging 37.0 points per game during the seeding round. He’s played at least 40 minutes in six of the Blazers’ seven bubble games. He’s carrying a massive burden for his team, all for a chance to face the Lakers’ superstar duo in the first round. There’s not a more compelling storyline in Orlando. The Lakers have been the West’s No. 1 seed for practically the balance of the season, but Lillard is so hot—and the Blazers so experienced—that it’s impossible not to fantasize about how fun that first-round matchup could be.
Lillard being recognized for what’s akin to an eight-game heat check would be an appropriate way for him to finally take home some meaningful hardware. He’s typically not included in conversations about the game’s very best players. The Blazers weren’t really anybody’s Finals pick last fall. But Dame’s relentlessness deserves to occupy some kind of special place in the NBA zeitgeist. Even if he’s not a guy who can single-handedly turn a franchise into a championship contender, he’s much, much more than simply an entertaining scorer. An eight-game, I-won’t-let-my-team-go-out-like-this MVP honor is oddly suiting.
The same intense commitment Lillard has to exploiting every pick-and-roll falls lockstep with his insistence on making it work in Portland. It’s not original to point out that in the era of free-flowing superstar movement, Dame has stayed put in the northwest. And in some way, it’s deeply satisfying watching him trying to make it work year after year even as the chess pieces move around him. Paul George can talk as much trash from the bench as he wants, but only one year after PG was smoking cigars with Russell Westbrook to celebrate his extension to stay in Oklahoma City, one Dame shot basically waved them both out of town. Even as elite players hop around the league in search of bottom-line results, rarely do they seem to experience moments as profound as that one.
It’s not over for the Blazers. They have one game left, and then there’s still the play-in if they want to make the playoffs.
“I ain’t come here to waste my time,” Lillard told TNT during his postgame interview after the win over the Mavs. “Our work ain’t done yet.”
You can almost stretch that sentiment to Dame’s career as a whole. He seems to understand he’s always in pursuit. It’s incredibly fun to watch. And now there’s finally a proper award for somebody who refuses to let up.