Damian Lillard is the essential superstar for this sterile moment. Bucket by steely bucket, his tenacious, high-scoring excellence demonstrates the purest why of sports during this awkward and pandemic-impaired time.
Over the past month, as more and more of these games trickle back into our consciousness, we’ve been searching for their meaning, even as we welcome their return. Why play? What can sports do to make us feel the usual passion and obsession while in this weird form, bubble-wrapped and sans spectators? What’s the point of sports during the novel coronavirus pandemic if they’re here primarily to make money or serve as a glorified billboard for social justice?
Just as the games feel naked without crowds, they are bare inside, lacking a clear competitive purpose. They are background noise – revenue-gobbling background noise – more than they have ever been. What’s worse, they appear content with being that. Sports, like everything else, is in survival mode. That is the reason so many don’t know what to do with them right now.
Lillard, nicknamed “Dame,” knows how to combat this foreign vibe. Attack. Keep going. Shoot the basketball from anywhere on the court – and watch a high percentage rip through the net. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard willed his under-.500 team to an NBA postseason that doesn’t mean much, not amid the devastation of 2020. And now that the Blazers are in this muted party, they’re determined to have some fun and turn the rest of LeBron James’s beard gray.
The Blazers lead the Los Angeles Lakers 1-0 in their best-of-seven series because, if we’re doing a real-time ranking of the current greats, Lillard is the most potent basketball player on the planet. People can debate the legitimacy of any champion crowned while sports don’t feel like sports, but there will be no asterisk next to Lillard’s performance.
His play transcends the desire to forget this time. His recent 51-61-42 scoring binge was a gift that all sports leagues should cherish because it restored the wow factor. Lillard might have summoned an awareness that, even though this experience is different in many ways, there are plenty of athletic feats still happening that are worthy of appreciation. With the NBA and NHL playoffs underway, there’s a chance that there will be enough drama to amplify the fact that, in all professional sports, the quality of play has been amazingly high.
The television ratings don’t reflect the quality, and some try to point to kneeling during the national anthem and messages about racial inequality as the problem. Although the polarity of those stances shouldn’t be dismissed as a factor, it is dishonest to measure major sports flatly against their ratings standard because so much has changed. The viewership had a four-month void. Habits have been altered. Several of these sports are off schedule and out of context. Loyalty must be earned anew.
COVID-19 doesn’t allow sports to be their customary spectacle. But through Lillard, it’s possible to feel the intensity of competition and connect with emotion to his determination. He has long been one of the game’s most underappreciated basketball savants, despite all the flair and from-the-parking lot shooting range in his game. He doesn’t play in a glitzy market, and he has shown no desire to leave Portland. Throughout his career, he has received considerable criticism for his defensive ambivalence.
But Lillard keeps going. He keeps growing. He didn’t come to the NBA bubble to finish a lost season. He came to send other people home.
“There ain’t nothing I want more,” he told Chris Haynes in a recent TNT postgame interview. “I told you when I first came here, I said I ain’t here to waste my time.”
Why play? Lillard just wants the competition. As the Lakers learned Tuesday night, this series with the Blazers is definitely going to be a competition. There is no No. 1 seed, no No. 8 seed. With the games in a neutral Disney gym, there is no home-court advantage. It’s basketball, stripped down, pure as can be.
When watching Lillard, sports become urgent again. And full of unexpected thrills. In a 100-93 Game 1 victory against the Lakers, he scored 34 points and made a couple more fourth-quarter shots beyond 30 feet. It was standard Lillard greatness, not otherworldly. He has more – and better – in his bag.
The Lakers, who have struggled on offense since the NBA restarted, better start making shots. On the other end, Lillard isn’t going to stop, and his teammates are following that relentless example.
“Our confidence has grown each game,” Lillard told reporters after the game. “It hasn’t always just been a crazy scoring run. We’ve had to come up with stops. We’ve had to make the extra pass. Different guys have had to make big shots.”
Lillard and the Blazers aren’t here to waste time. They are in the moment, strange as it is, and relishing a playoff appearance that seemed unlikely just three weeks ago.
That is the simple why: not taking an opportunity for granted. In a year of hardship, that is a profound why, a nod to the soul of sports, a spirit that can stifled but not destroyed.
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