Before ever engaging in a training-camp practice with the Portland Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard had completed a workout on a running track and gathered the nerve to ask his new assistant coach David Vanterpool a question on the walk to the parking lot: Do you think I can be an All-Star someday?
"I paused," Vanterpool texted late Friday, "because I thought to myself, 'This kid has no idea how good he really is.' He already had the heart and ability, but that humility and uncertainty can check you and make you work harder for everything."
Out of the hard streets of Oakland, Calif., and the snowy mountains outside Salt Lake City had come a guard to change everything for these Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard had come to re-engage a disillusioned star forward and resurrect a forlorn franchise. He had come to take the biggest shot in a decade of beleaguered Blazers basketball, and take Game 6 from the Houston Rockets, take this season beyond everyone's wildest training-camp expectations.
Lillard gave everyone a moment for the ages on Friday night, a gateway to greater victories and times. On his hard cut to the inbounder with .9 seconds left in Game 6 on Friday night at the old Rose Garden, Lillard clapped his hands twice, his way of telling the passer that he had a chance to catch and turn and get that 3-pointer into the air.
All the way up arched the ball – lifting into the air toward that 1977 NBA championship banner, all the way up into the sky where the great Jack Ramsay had gone to be at peace this week – and all the way into the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in 14 years.
Lillard grabbed the P.A. announcer's courtside microphone, and screamed over the deafening din: "Rip CIty!"
Rip City Revival. The Blazers won 33 games a year ago, and LaMarcus Aldridge appeared destined to be one more maximum-contract star to be moved out of fear he'd never sign an extension to stay. General manager Neil Olshey listened on deals, including ones from Chicago and Golden State, but he was never giving away Aldridge. Most of all, he was never giving up. The drafting of Lillard delivered the Blazers a second star, and a deft summer of free agency and trades reshaped the roster into contention.
This should've been impossible to do, but Olshey and coach Terry Stotts pulled out an improbable transformation. Everywhere else, executives and coaches have been forced into trades for unhappy stars, but the Blazers have made it so difficult for Aldridge to want to ever leave Portland. This is a young core with staying power, surrounded with a city whose heart has been desperate for a winner, a fan base that unburdened itself of all those years of heartache in the instant Lillard's 3-pointer dropped late Friday night.
Lillard changed everything for the Blazers. He's made the possibilities endless. Olshey had been enamored scouting Lillard at Weber State, had loved him in his predraft workout at the Blazers' facility, but it wasn't until they were sitting over dinner that Olshey understood he had something so precious here. Here was Lillard on his predraft trip to Portland in the spring of 2012, surrounded by the GM, owner Paul Allen, the front-office staff. Everyone left the table in agreement: We have to get him.
It never bothered Olshey the analytics movement had little regard for Lillard: Too old, they said. Too few steals. Didn't get to the free-throw line. Whatever. This was a star, the Blazers believed. They had to have him.
"The clincher," Olshey told Yahoo Sports on Saturday morning. "His composure and presence convinced me that he could be a franchise point guard. You would've thought we were speaking a 10-year vet."
Olshey had come out of his rebuild of the Los Angeles Clippers, where he had been surrounded with generational standards of point-guard genius and presence – Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups. "My bar was pretty high," Olshey said.
For everything the future holds for these Blazers, make no mistake: Opportunities are precious in the NBA. They're here today, gone tomorrow – and these Blazers have a chance to keep winning in these playoffs. Beating the Rockets isn't an upset, nor is this some magical, mystical run. The Blazers have two NBA superstars and an unselfish, unrelenting supporting cast.
To come into the old Rose Garden and beat this team could be the toughest task of this Western Conference postseason. The city has waited so long, and it's uplifting Lillard and Aldridge and these Blazers, the way those players are uplifting them.
"It caught me off guard," Olshey told Yahoo Sports earlier in the season. "Listen, I had been in this building as a front-office executive, a coach, and I knew how much it meant inside this building with the fans. But how much the identity of this city is wrapped up in the Blazers. It's so important that this team performs well – and does it with the right kind of guys. It's not just winning, but how we win, how we lose, how guys play, how guys treat the fans.
"And you know, that's what accelerated it for me. It would be great to come in with a three-to-five-year plan, slowly rebuild, but about five minutes after I got here, I realized: 'We're going to have to pick the pace up on this thing.' "
So a young point guard walks out of the Big Sky Conference and four years of college basketball, walks out of the workout gymnasium and dinner with management and ultimately comes to ask an assistant coach: Do you think I can be an All-Star someday? Lillard won Rookie of the Year, made that All-Star team and now hits a forever shot to move the Blazers back into playoff prominence.
Two years ago, the kid talked about Someday, and Someday has come fast for him. Someday came faster than everyone imagined for these Blazers because they gave Damian Lillard the ball, gave him the trust, and there's no telling where he takes them now.
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