In my 40-plus years as a basketball player, coach, referee and all-around zealot, I have found that there’s no reliable metric when off-the-charts talent meets out-of-your-mind poor judgment.
A standout player can make what appears to be the worst decision, and somehow make it right. This is especially true when that out-sized talent is rivaled by the individual’s confidence in said talent.
Which brings me to Portland Trail Blazer guard Damian Lillard’s winning shot on Tuesday evening. With Portland up 3-1 in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the score is tied after Portland has overcome a 15-point deficit. All they need is a basket of any kind—even a free throw will do the trick.
For Lillard, this has been a special night already. He had 34 points at the half, a new team playoff record, and 47 points at this point. But he has been slumping in the second half and has missed half his shots overall.
He brings the ball past half court with 12 seconds to go, then strolls near the Blazer logo with eight seconds remaining. As the seconds tick down, for a good six seconds, there is the All-Star guard rocking back and forth just a step away from the logo. One of the league’s best defensive players, Paul George, is giving him a few feet of space because, well, Lillard’s closer to the bathroom than the basket.
Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two…
As I am lying on my living room couch, cat outstretched on my legs and my smartphone only a few inches from my eyes, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This had all the feeling of a playground, with the only thing at stake being pride—and the right to stay on the court to take on the next group of five guys waiting in the wings.
Does Lillard realize that he’s blowing his team’s chances of winning in regulation? Why isn’t he going anywhere? Does he really want to go back to Oklahoma City for Game 6?
I have begun mapping out my next two minutes: first, I stick around to see Lillard miss the impossibly, irresponsibly, needlessly long shot. Next, I re-fill my water bottle while keeping alert to commercials ending and the broadcasters’ righteous lambasting of Lillard’s arrogant hero ball-hog behavior as the contest heads to overtime.
After all, as any basketball fan knows, he had plenty of time to do plenty of higher-percentage things. Try these three options for starters:
Option #1: Drive all the way to the basket and try a layup or another close-in shot that would, surely, be challenged by a much taller defender or set of defenders. At the same time, this climactic clash could result in a foul and Lillard is exceptional at free throws.
Option #2: Drive toward the basket, draw a crowd of defenders, and then kick out a pass to a wide-open teammate who would be, oh I don’t know, somewhere in the same ZIP code and therefore stood a much better chance of making the winning basket than Lillard near midcourt.
Option #3: Drive toward the basket, step back somewhere along the way, and take a 15-footer, a 20-footer, even a 25-footer would be a much better choice.
But what does Lillard do instead?
He moves to his right with a shade over two seconds left, stepping back slightly to create enough space to loft the ball over a lunging George’s outstretched hand. The release happens with about 1 1/2 seconds left–and the ball takes that much time to arc 37 feet toward the basket, the buzzer sounding just as the ball drops in for three points.
You can see it all, from a variety of angles, for yourself:
Portland wins the series, and George—who did all he could do—simply walks off the court as Blazer players, staff and supporters form a victory pile.
Goes to show: sometimes the absolute worst shot, in the hands of a supremely talented and supremely confident player, can become the best shot of all.