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Opinion: Wildcat Legend’s six most memorable moments

Tyler Haslam also contributed to this story.

Damian Lillard is the most accomplished athlete to ever put on a purple and white uniform in Ogden. He’s one of three Wildcat basketball players whose jerseys are retired. He made the most 3-pointers in Wildcat basketball history, is a two-time Big Sky Conference MVP, is a Big Sky Conference Hall of Famer and is a six-time NBA All-Star who’s one of the most electrifying players dribbling and shooting a basketball in the NBA today.

Damian Lillard knocks down the game-winning three-pointer to lift the Portland Trail Blazers past the Oklahoma City Thunder, 118-115, in Game five of their first-round playoff series on Tuesday, April 23, 2019 at Moda Center. The Blazers won the series 4-1.
Damian Lillard knocks down the game-winning 3-pointer to lift the Portland Trail Blazers past the Oklahoma City Thunder, 118–115, in game five of their first-round playoff series on April 23, 2019 at Moda Center. The Blazers won the series 4–1. Photo credit: MCT

In honor of Dame’s sixth All-Star game appearance — in which he slammed down alley-oops and swished 3-pointers from behind the half-court line — we’ve created a list of our six most memorable moments from our favorite Weber State Wildcat.

So get ready — it’s Dame time.

6. Lighting up the 2021 All-Star Game after being snubbed a spot in the starting lineup

Tyler: The first moment on the list happened just a couple weekends ago when Lillard took to the court for Team LeBron in the 2021 All-Star game. Many pundits and followers of the NBA, including myself, were shocked when they learned that Luka Doncic, not Lillard, would be a starting guard in the All-Star game. While Doncic is a great player in his own right, Lillard’s resume this season was indisputably much more refined.

Lillard responded by scorching the nets for team LeBron and playing a huge role in Team LeBron’s dominating, 20-point victory over Team Durant. Lillard shot over 50% from the field and 50% from three — many of which came from 30 feet or more.

The crown jewel of all of Lillard’s unreal shots came on the final play of the game, when he pulled up from just beyond half-court and nailed the 3-pointer that gave Team LeBron the necessary points to end the game.

The shot was a brilliant snapshot summary of Lillard’s amazing basketball career. Drilling a game-winning shot from ridiculous range in a game that features the best basketball players in the world is just something that Lillard would do. If not for Giannis’ historic 16-for-16 shooting night, it likely would’ve been Dame who was crowned the All-Star game MVP.

I’m not sure if being snubbed from the starting lineup gave Dame a chip on his shoulder, but he played like he had something to prove. But then again, doesn’t he always play like he has something to prove?

5. Winning the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year

Miles: While some college basketball players leave college and develop into stars over time, Lillard hit the hardwood running, shooting and dribbling all over his professional opposition in a similar fashion that he did from 2009-12 at the Dee Events Center.

While averaging 19.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists while playing 38 minutes per game, he buried his opposition with barrages of threes and torched his opponents on the way to the rim and the Rookie of the Year Trophy.

What sticks out to me about his first season with the Trail Blazers are the specific games where his shooting arm became a flamethrower. He played the Warriors in front of his hometown Oakland crowd and dropped a 37-point game with 7 threes. Dame always plays inspired basketball, but this game in front of his hometown was just different.

But maybe the most special game of his rookie season was against the L.A. Lakers in Portland, when he went toe-to-toe and shot-for-shot with Kobe Bryant. I remember watching this game, thinking, “This is one of the greatest basketball games ever.”

One play in this game might be my favorite Lillard play ever. He steals a Dwight Howard cross-court pass and tips it ahead to himself, and with the ball at the 3-point line, he rises up to shoot the triple, even though two of his teammates are running down for a 3-on-1. With zero hesitation, he buried the three. Lillard ended up with 38 points, his rookie season-high.

Even though Portland lost, Lillard took the respect of Kobe, who said after the game, “That boy’s serious. He’s serious, and he’s not afraid of anything. He has the whole package.”

Now, after nearly a decade of Dame in the NBA, we know he was just getting warmed up, and that Kobe might’ve given the perfect description of his style of play.

4. Dropping his then career-high, 59 points, on the Utah Jazz in 2017

Tyler: For Jazz fans like myself, this one is definitely going to be one that is very memorable. Lillard has been a Jazz-killer for most of his career. He seems to go off nearly every time he plays Utah. Maybe it’s because there’s a piece of nearly every Jazz fan that cheers him on because he came out of Weber State. But this was the best game he’s ever played against the Jazz, and, at that time, it was arguably the best game of his career.

From the opening tip, it became apparent that Lillard was going to have a crazy game when he scored 26 points in the opening quarter alone. He also finished the game having made nine 3-pointers. The 59-point game helped the Trail Blazers beat the Jazz and go a game and a half ahead of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

There were unconfirmed rumors that when Lillard was coming into the NBA draft from Weber, Portland was willing to trade the pick where they eventually selected Lillard to the Jazz for a package centered around Paul Millsap. The Jazz supposedly rejected this offer, since Paul Millsap appeared to be a rising star at the time. True or not, I’m reminded of what could’ve been every time he plays against the Jazz. But during this game, I found myself thinking about that could-be scenario even more so than usual.

3. Scoring his career-high, 61 points, in the 2020 NBA Bubble to move Portland into the eighth seed and a playoff berth

Miles: The NBA Bubble brought out another level of play in pro basketball, and Dame went off like nobody else in Orlando. The basketball world seemed shocked that Lillard went off with games of 45, 51 and 61, but for Wildcat fans and anyone else who’s followed Dame’s career closely, it wasn’t the least bit surprising.

After five months of no basketball, Dame was scorching hot and put the Trail Blazers on his back with a playoff berth on his mind. The Dallas Mavericks were the unfortunate team to be on the other end. Usually, if a team puts up 131 points, it’s safe to say they have a good shot at winning the game, but Lillard’s career high, 61, led Portland to 134 points and the win.

This game should’ve been looked at as an example by the NBA for who to select in the 2021 All-Star game, since Lillard completely outplayed Luka Doncic, who was selected above him, but that unfortunately wasn’t the case.

The best part of this game was seeing the Mavericks try everything to stop Logo Lillard and they couldn’t. From drives to the basket to the logo at center court, he was flat-out unguardable, and the only way to describe his play in the bubble was wild, just wild.

2. Winning the first playoff series for the Portland Trail Blazers in 14 years with a buzzer beater vs. Houston in 2014

Tyler: If the hand-wave buzzer-beater wasn’t so iconic (sorry, spoiler alert), this shot would easily be number one on the list. This shot certainly has more historical implications than the hand-wave shot did. While both buzzer-beaters were series-clinching shots, this shot secured the Trail Blazers’ first playoff series victory in 14 years.

One can also make the argument that this shot is even more difficult than the shot over Paul George. The hand-wave shot was definitely from a farther distance, but Lillard had to catch, turn and then shoot this shot on the run with only nine-tenths of a second remaining on the clock. In typical Lillard fashion, he made it look easy, but this shot is about as difficult as a shot can get in basketball.

Many thought that Houston would win this series fairly easily, so Lillard sinking that shot to knock the Rockets out of the playoffs made it that much sweeter. I remember watching this shot live while I was in high school.

I got goosebumps watching it then, and I still get goosebumps when I watch it now. At the time of this shot, Lillard already had a lot of respect amongst those in the league, but I believe that hitting this shot was the moment Lillard entered superstar status in the NBA. It was a hard decision to make this shot number two, but we thought that the hand-wave celebration was just too iconic and cold blooded to not be number one.

1. Waving Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder goodbye in the first round of the 2019 NBA playoffs

Miles: Has a basketball ever been shot better then Dame’s game-winning 3-pointer he buried over Paul George from a few steps over halfcourt? I don’t think so. This shot had me leaping off the couch and looking at my TV screen in awe.

It’s one of the best shots in NBA history, and it resides on the same shelf in NBA lore as Jordan’s Championship-winning hold-the-pose shot over the Jazz, Kobe’s jersey pull after hitting the game-winner over Phoenix and Kyrie Irving’s NBA Finals Game 7 three to give Cleveland its first championship win ever.

Also, the aftermath of this shot is just as ridiculous as the shot itself. It sparked numerous memes of Lillard’s teammates celebrating and mobbing him while he’s just looking at the camera with an expression that says “You haven’t seen anything yet.” The shot sparked up a rivalry between Lillard and fellow All-Star Paul George, so much so that in the 2020 Orlando Bubble, Paul George and teammates got into a twitter feud with the Wildcat, which ended in a 51-point performance for Dame in his following game against the Philadelphia 76ers. If other players haven’t figured it out yet, it’s best not to set Lillard off, because he’s capable of doing anything on a basketball court — anywhere and anytime.

This shot epitomizes who Lilllard is as a player — someone who will end opposing teams’ seasons and prove he belongs even if he gets snubbed a spot in the starting lineup at the All-Star game or of MVP votes at the end of the regular season.

He’ll just keep leading his team like he did on March 16, when he carried Portland back from a 14-point halftime deficit against the New Orleans Pelicans and drained the game-winning free throws to finish with 50 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds.

Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard
Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard takes a shot.

At this point, what can’t he do to win a game for Portland?

In a survey in December 2020 of all 30 NBA General Managers, one question was asked: Who would you want to take the last shot for your team? It wasn’t surprising that the player with the most votes was Damian Lillard.

But the great thing about basketball is that at the end of the day, it’s a simple game, and you don’t have to be a GM or coach to see the obvious, which is that Big Game Dame’s been the most clutch player in the NBA for a while now, and it’s not even close.

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