The NBA bubble race for the final playoff spot has it all.
There is a team here that hasn’t played a damn playoff game in 10 years, a team that didn’t even think it would be invited to the bubble, and one surely no one thought would come this far.
There is a team with a legendary coach, who may be on the verge of retiring, who has coached in the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons, who has also openly been saying there were no real plans to make the playoffs from the bubble. And now, it just might.
And there is a frontrunner on the verge of total collapse, through little fault of its own, having lost six of seven games at Disney, with one, final, desperate chance to advance by winning Thursday.
The Phoenix Suns, the San Antonio Spurs (and Gregg Popovich, of course), and Memphis Grizzlies are all compelling stories in this delicious, suspenseful, coming-down-to-the-final day race to be in the NBA’s first-ever play-in round for the playoffs. And they all must step aside for a moment.
They don’t have a player doing things only Wilt Chamberlain has done, someone becoming the first in their franchise’s history to score at least 50 points in consecutive games.
They don’t have a player quite like this, who welcomes the controversy and the talk, who waves in its face as another dagger 3 splashes. They don’t have 61. They don’t have Damian Lillard.
To say Lillard’s 61 points in Portland’s 134-131 thriller over the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday was historic would be to undersell this. Indeed, he became the second player in league history to post his third game of 60 or more points in the same season, joining Wilt. And yes, he is the first Blazer ever to post consecutive games of at least 50 points, following up on his 51-point explosion from Saturday.
But his performance is even more historic when you consider the circumstances.
There’s never been a race like this. An NBA season has never ended inside a quarantine at Disney World, in a frigid, empty gymnasium, with a pennant-race-like chase for a play-in series to get into the playoffs. Not on a day when two of the other three teams in the race also won, creating a virtual tie among the Grizzlies, Suns and Spurs, who are all a half-game behind the Blazers, with one to play.
Had the Blazers lost this game against the Mavericks, after everything else that happened Tuesday, they would have needed two of the three teams they’re battling to lose on the final day of the regular season. But thanks to Damian Lillard’s 61 points, all they need to do is beat Brooklyn Thursday and they’re the eighth seed, which means they only have to win one game in the play-in round.
So now that Dame’s performance has been put into context, let’s evaluate what he did.
Lillard’s line looked like this: 17-of-32 shots, 9-of-17 3s, and 18-of-18 at the line, with eight assists and five rebounds in 41 minutes. He scored 36 of those points, drained six of those 3s, and connected on 16 of those free throws after halftime, which is good because, well, the Blazers blew a nine-point lead and trailed by six with 8:12 to go.
He tied his own franchise scoring record. And there’s the Wilt thing, which Chamberlain did 15 times in 1961-62, and then nine more the next season. Lillard became the sixth player with at least three 60-point games in a career. He’s the sixth player to ever record six 50-point games in the same season. The eighth with at least 11 50-point games in a career. The 12th in NBA history to post consecutive 50-point games. Set a Blazers record for foul shots in a game without a miss (18), and became the third player in league history with at least four games of nine or more 3s.
“First of all I’m just happy to be in that type of company,” Lillard said, about joining Wilt in the exclusive 60-point, three-times-in-a-season club. “It’s an honor. And I’m also happy that it came, two of the three came in a winning effort, and tonight couldn’t have been better timing for that type of game.
There was another singular, iconic Dame moment, up there with the wave to the Thunder or the sending home of the Rockets after big 3s in playoffs past. It came with 1:29 left and the Blazers down by three. Lillard let fly a 33-footer that looked on line, but it struck the back of the rim and bounced about a 20 feet in the air. But like everything else he put up, it sank through the cylinder.
Lillard said his lucky-bounce 3 was the work of his late cousin, Brandon, who died while the NBA was shutdown during the pandemic.
“It dropped in, and you know, I think that was my cousin,” Lillard said. “Rest in peace, Chef B. I think that was him dropping that in for me.”
Lillard knows all of this will mean nothing if they can not secure the playoff birth. Luckily their fate lies in their hands.
On Thursday, the Blazers, Grizzlies, Suns and Spurs all play. If the Grizzlies, who came to Disney 3 ½-games up on the field for eighth, beat the Bucks, they’re in the play-in. The Suns, who have not been to the playoffs since 2010, are on their first seven-game winning streak since that season, and were 2 ½-games out of ninth ahead of the restart. They need to beat the Mavericks and have either Memphis or Portland lose to get in. The Spurs need to beat Utah and have two of the three other teams lose.