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Damian Lillard’s third quarter forces Game 7

PORTLAND, Ore. — It was about four minutes into the third quarter of Game 6, and Damian Lillard peeled off a high screen, sizing up Nikola Jokic in front of him. He had Jokic leaning, and Lillard saw his opportunity. One hard dribble, stop, pop and fire.

Except Jokic saw it coming. Lillard was caught in the air and had to throw it to no one in particular. Gary Harris picked it off and Lillard balled up his fists, swinging them in the air in frustration. It wasn’t just a turnover; it was a missed opportunity at a moment.

Twenty seconds earlier Lillard had hit a 3 — officially listed at 27 feet — which came right after hitting a 19-foot stepback. There was a low growl in the arena as everyone could sense something finally unlocking for Lillard. It’s not that he’d been bottled up in the series, but the signature haymakers weren’t there. It’s rare for Lillard to score quietly, but his 26.2 points per game on 42.9 percent shooting the series through five games weren’t registering any decibels.

The Trail Blazers are more than just what Lillard makes them, but he is their heartbeat. There’s an obvious fear on the other side when he turns on the oven and gets out the ingredients to cook. A Lillard 3 is worth the same as anyone else’s, but not in the abstract. It has an intangible value.

So when he hit the eject button to rise up on a dime to launch in front of Jokic, it’s not subtle what Lillard is trying to do. He’s hunting a timeout. He wants to make the opposing coach call one.

“Because I know how it feels being on the other side, the visiting team, when the crowd is going crazy and you’ve got to call a timeout,” he said. “You’ve got regroup and go in the huddle and have these conversations.

“I guess that is true,” he said, thinking it over. “I look for those moments.”

After he shook off the turnover, he was back to hunting. Two minutes later he turned the corner and got downhill to the rim for a layup. The Nuggets didn’t answer and he followed it with a midrange jumper. Four-point lead. Jokic scored five straight on his own to give Denver a lead, but Lillard responded with a 3 to put Portland back up two. Two free throws from Lillard, but a Paul Millsap layup in return. So it was time to get serious about it. Time to step out to near Logoland. Splash. Five-point lead, momentum building, a Zach Collins block and Jokic foul, and Lillard got what he wanted. Timeout, Denver.

“You’re not going to kill ’em in the third quarter, you’re not going to kill ’em with eight, nine minutes left in the fourth quarter,” Lillard said, “but you can get that crowd going.”

Lillard’s logo shot is a nuclear weapon few possess in the NBA, but one the Nuggets have largely eliminated. Against the Thunder, he went 5-of-5 on shots from 30-plus feet. Prior to Game 6, he was 2-of-6 in against Denver, and if he took one, it was because he was trying to, not because it was there. In Game 6, he was 2-of-2 from 30-plus (not counting his heave at the end of the third quarter from 72 feet that was on line and hit the front of the rim). Against the Thunder, Lillard averaged 5.2 3-pointers a game; against Denver, he hadn’t hit more than four in a game. Game 6, he hit six 3s.

“It was definitely a combination of him understanding what time it is,” Malone said in a Freudian-ish slip, “and us not being as engaged defensively as we need to be.”

By the end of the third quarter, the tide had basically turned. Lillard scored 17 of his 32 in the third, featuring three ruthless 3s. The Blazers had control and Lillard felt to be the perpetual, unrelenting threat he was for five games against the Thunder. The fourth quarter was about finishing, and with Rodney Hood‘s continued resurrection, CJ McCollum‘s slithering midrange daggers, only four points were needed from Lillard to close a 119-108 win, forcing Game 7 on Sunday.

“Don’t overthink, don’t make it some big, crazy deal or nothing like that,” Lillard said of Game 7. “We’re going to play a basketball game. And it’s a big game, and we’ve won on their floor before, and we know what type of mentality we had when we did that.”

McCollum summarized it to the simplest, most understandable form.

“Somebody’s got to go to Cabo or Cancun as Chuck would say,” he said.

For as much as what fuels the Lillard mythology — the big shots, the clutch moments, the catchphrase, the wrist-tapping — Dame Time has never been in a Game 7. There’s a Lillard lore building in real-time this postseason and it feels like Game 7 could be another chapter. The Nuggets have prioritized Lillard to an extreme degree in the series, forcing the ball out of his hands. But with their season on the line, one would expect nothing less than Lillard would take matters into them. And the same goes for Game 7.

“Damian knows this is win-or-go-home, you know what kind of mindset a great player is going to come out with,” Malone said. “Coupled with us maybe not being as physical and into him, our bigs not being up at the level as often so he’s able to come off and make six 3s. We’ve done a really good job of taking away the 3-point from him for most of the series and tonight he got off.”

It would seem there was possibly some kind of adjustment, some tactical chess move that opened an inch more of room for Lillard to break free that could carry over to Sunday, and while maybe some of the Blazers screens were set higher and Terry Stotts instinctively rolled with a smaller lineup to space the floor, it’s not always that complicated.

“Some of it was he just really made good plays as well,” Stotts said with a shrug.

Said McCollum: “As we always say it’s a make or miss league. Tonight he made ’em. A game on the line, a series on the line, that’s when great players rise to the occasion. He understood what was at stake.”

The Blazers have been pushed to the limits this season, their resolve tested at different stages, to different degrees. A Game 7 on the road is almost a fitting final exam to see if they can go further than they have in the Lillard era. Lillard is the kind of player that seems built for it, his steely leadership setting a focused, calm tone for the team. It will be tense, it will be challenging. It will be about daggers, about shifting waves of momentum, about details, about moments.

And Lillard is always looking for one of those.

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