One second and one shot. That's all it took for Damian Lillard. With the Portland Trail Blazers down by two points in the final second of a decisive Game 6 against the Houston Rockets last May, the sophomore guard nailed a series-clinching three. The Moda Center erupted in jubilation, and streamers fell from the rafters. The pivotal shot advanced the Blazers – a squad that missed the postseason in the previous two seasons – to the Western Conference semifinals for the first time since 2000. It also solidified Lillard's reputation as one of the most clutch shooters in the NBA.
But that wasn't Lillard's only game-winner during the 2013–14 season. The 6′3″ All-Star, who averaged 20.7 points per game last year, also put away the Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Phoenix Suns with last-minute buckets. Lillard gets it done with a variety of shots: a scoop layup after a sharp drive to the hole, a spinning fadeaway jumper in the lane, and a 26-foot, in-your-face trey if you give him a enough room [as former Cavs forward Alonzo Gee did last December]. Recently, Lillard spoke to SI KIDS about those game-winners and how he performs under pressure.
Learning the Hard Way
When the game is on the line, I want to take the shot. I want to be that player. I've been that way since I was eight years old. It started when I would play basketball in front of my house in San Jose, California. The last shot I would take before going inside would be a game-winner. I'd count down the final seconds, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and put up the shot. I'd keep counting down and shooting until I made it. That was my routine even at the end of basketball practices when I got older. That really helped me mentally prepare for the big moments.
I remember my first clutch shot was when I was in the eighth grade. I was playing on an AAU team. We were losing the whole game, but we came back and were down by one. We had possession of the ball. My teammate missed a shot, but I got the rebound. I dribbled out a little and made a shot. I was so excited that I took my jersey off. But the clock hadn't expired! I got a technical foul, and the opposing team hit two free throws. They won. I felt the highest level of excitement and the lowest level of disappointment in such a short span. I made the shot to win, but because I celebrated too fast, we lost. It's funny now, but it wasn't then!
Rising to the Occasion
Now that I play in the pros, I know that when I hit a big shot I have to stay calm until the clock runs out, like when we played the Suns last year. We were down by one late in the fourth quarter. Coming out of a timeout, I got the inbounds pass, and my plan was to come off the pick as hard as I could in an attempt to draw a foul and get two free throws. When I turned the corner, I saw there was a clean drive to the rim, and I made the layup. There were 6.5 seconds left, but the Suns didn't capitalize, and we won. I celebrated after time expired.
Against the Pistons in overtime, the start of the play was similar to the one against the Suns. The game was tied. I ran some time off the clock, and there was a high pick. The guard, Rodney Stuckey, got under me, so I tried to get him off balance. I used my spin move and faded away for the shot. I had just enough space to hit it. I think .1 of a second was left. In those final moments it's just pure adrenaline. No nerves for me, because I practiced those shots for so long.
The next game we were in Cleveland to play the Cavs. Our assistant coach, David Vanterpool, told me he felt good energy in the air and that it was going to be "one of those nights." I agreed. I had the same vibe, and the ball just felt so good in my hands. It's hard to explain, but it did turn out to be one of the best shooting nights of my career — I had 36 points. My final shot, those last three points, was what helped us win. There were under five seconds left. I sized up my defender and made the shot at the top of the key.
These moments are full of adrenaline, and they can be a blur. During Game 6 in the first round against the Rockets, right before that final shot, I relied on instinct. There was less than a second left, and I was watching the ref carefully as he handed the ball to my teammate Nicolas Batum, who was inbounding. Then I just took off running. Chandler Parsons was defending me, but I caught him off guard. Once the whistle blew, I was already gone. I clapped my hands for the ball. I caught it and threw it up to beat the buzzer. It was crazy because we were home, and we hadn't made it out of the first round of the playoffs in so long. Before the whistle blew, I understood what was at stake. There could have been a Game 7. But once the play began, things happened so quickly. The ball was in my hands and everything changed. I live for moments like that.
Photos: Craig Mitchell/USA Today Sports (Rockets), Sam Forench/NBAE/Getty Images (Suns), D. Williams/Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images (Pistons), Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty Images (Cavs)