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【ban ca khong minh】Inside Damian Lillard's NBA legacy with Portland Trail Blazers
发布日期:2023-04-01 00:42:55

PORTLAND, ORE. -- ONthe baseline near the Portland Trail Blazers' bench, in a forest green Adidas tracksuit, 4-year-old Damian Lillard Jr. sprints toward his father, wrapping himself around his leg as if he were hugging a tree. The elder Damian Lillard beams, lifting his knee-high son inches from his face. Cameras swoop in to chronicle the Kodak moment about 90 minutes before tipoff against the Orlando Magic in early January. The stands are nearly empty, save for a section behind Lillard full of school-age children from a local church who watch Lillard's every move. After completing a pregame interview, Lillard retires to a baseline chair and watches his teammates warm up with his son propped up in his lap.

Lillard Jr. can be protective of his father, warding off strangers who approach for an autograph or a quick word, but Lillard brings his firstborn to the office as often as possible. He's in the team's practice facility for Lillard's late-night workouts. He's in Lillard's Sprinter van for trips to the arena for games. Lillard toted him along to New York when the Blazers' played the Knicks over Thanksgiving this season, keeping him nearby from pregame almost to tipoff during his son's first visit to Madison Square Garden. Lillard makes the effort, in part, because he knows that as much as the NBA gives -- fame, generational wealth, a global stage -- it also takes.

Those who live by the league's schedule can become absentee fathers, husbands, wives, mothers. They miss birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, first steps and final breaths. That is the price; being present requires tall efforts.

In December, the Trail Blazers played the Nuggets in Denver two days before Christmas. The day before the game, the National Weather Service reported temperatures of minus-24 degrees Fahrenheit at Denver International Airport, with a wind chill of minus-40. More than 500 flights were canceled, another 700-plus delayed.

"We didn't know if we were going to make it out," Lillard told ESPN.

But he was determined that when his children -- Damian Jr. and 2-year-old twins Kali and Kalii -- woke on Christmas morning, they would see his face. Lillard arranged for a private jet on standby. Ultimately, the team plane departed, but Lillard's determination was felt throughout the organization.

"I was going home," he said, sternly, "one way or another."

His twins have yet to reach that formative stage, but Damian Jr. is old enough to build memories that last, and Lillard wants those to contain all aspects of his career. Not just the games now, when the 32-year-old is in his prime, but the preparation, too -- the whole of it that has helped provide his son with the life that he has.

"It's important for him to see that," Lillard said of what he calls his top priority, "but also important for him to know who I am to have that bond."

Bonds are sacred to Lillard. He says he wears the letter O -- not the number zero -- as an homage to his native Oakland, California, but his ties to Portland and the Trail Blazers are, by this point, eternal. Trail Blazers general manager Joe Cronin calls the point guard "the best Trail Blazer to ever put on the uniform," and Portland coach Chauncey Billups later says Lillard is "the forever face of the Trail Blazers."

Lillard's loyalty has been handsomely rewarded. This past summer he signed a new two-year contract extension that keeps him tied to Portland through the 2026-27 season -- during which he'll make $63.2 million. By the end of his extension, he will have made nearly a half-billion dollars from the team.

But for all that money, Lillard -- Portland's all-time leading scorer and a member of the NBA's 75th anniversary team -- is no closer to filling one notable hole on his lengthy NBA résumé: a championship. That is why Cronin describes "a sense of urgency" to help the point guard win one before the window of his prime closes. Lillard is averaging career highs in points (31.4), field-goal percentage (46.7%), 3-point makes (4.2 per game) and several other categories. He became the eighth player in NBA history to score at least 70 points in a game on Sunday night. But how many more dominant seasons can the Trail Blazers expect from him? There have been only 10 instances in league history of a player 6-foot-2 or shorter averaging at least 20 points per game at age 32 or older, according to ESPN Stats & Information; Lillard's current season is one of those instances.

He is still playing elite level basketball, and could ring chase elsewhere, perhaps, but doing so would be very un-Lillard.

For now, in an uncertain season with the young team paddling through the middle of the Western Conference, it's unclear how far a title might be, if it ever arrives at all. And on the baseline, as the clock ticks toward tipoff, Lillard lifts his son from his lap and disappears into the tunnel. Now in his 11th season with Portland, it's time for Damian Lillard to do all he can at this point: Give the fans a show.

THE TRAIL BLAZERShad lost three straight and seven of their past nine entering the Jan. 10 game against the Magic, a steep plummet from their 9-3 start to the season. In teal jerseys that honor the famed carpet at Portland International Airport, the home team's funk continues against Orlando, as Portland gives up a 15-0 run to start the second half. But then, with the Moda Center mostly asleep, Lillard brings the building alive.

It starts on the right wing, when the fleet-footed Lillard crosses up the less agile 6-foot-11 Moritz Wagner and knifes down the lane. At the rim, Lillard meets Magic guard Cole Anthony. They elevate as one, and Lillard delivers a thunderous one-handed slam on top of Anthony's head with 1:35 left in the third quarter, jolting the crowd upright. Soon after, Lillard beats the third-quarter buzzer with a 27-foot step-back 3-pointer from that same right wing, and the familiar Lillard-inspired delirium has infected those in attendance. But the Trail Blazers would ultimately fall 109-106, extending their skid to four straight. Portland missed three potential game-tying 3-pointers on the final possession; Lillard attempted none of them.

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When Lillard emerges from the Trail Blazers locker room afterward, he is greeted by a new addition to the Moda Center hallways: An 8-foot-by-4-foot photo of himself, printed on an acrylic panel, capturing the moment in December when he sank a free throw for his 18,040th point, passing Clyde Drexler to become the franchise's all-time leading scorer. When Lillard turns left, heading down the path toward the room where the team holds its news conferences, he walks by two more photos of the same size that depict his playoff series-winning buzzer-beaters in 2014 (against the Houston Rockets) and 2019 (against the Oklahoma City Thunder).

There are 11 such photos along the wall, each capturing key moments in the organization's history. Lillard has passed them countless times. He often takes notice of the one with Drexler and Michael Jordan from the 1992 NBA Finals. But just a few paces farther is another photo: from June 5, 1977, when the Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 109-107 to win the championship. It shows fans having stormed the court at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum -- an image of sheer pandemonium.

A day later, at the team practice facility, Lillard admits he thinks of a title "all the time." He began thinking about it more six or seven years ago, when the Trail Blazers started making deeper postseason runs, culminating with a 2019 Western Conference Finals appearance.

"What if we actually do it?" Lillard would ask himself.

But in the same breath, Lillard said, "I have this fear, like, 'What if it don't happen?'"

"If it didn't happen," he added, "I wouldn't feel good about it. But I'm always going to say that I'm invested in the journey, because there's a lot of moments that I'll cherish that I'll always appreciate whether I get there or not."

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He thinks about all the places he's been able to reach. He didn't have a major scholarship offer coming out of high school in 2008 before landing at Weber State in Utah. He wanted to make the NBA, and he did in 2012. He wanted to be Rookie of the Year, and he did in 2013. He wanted to make the All-Star team, All-NBA squad, win playoff series, sink game winners -- he has done it all.

There is so much talk of titles. So, for a moment, Lillard thinks back to his dunk, and ensuing buzzer-beating 3-pointer, against the Magic. He considers how much electricity he has provided the city in his decade here.

"We devalue people's body of work if you don't win a championship," Lillard said. "I've shown up for 11 straight years. Just think about how much time that is. When you really think about 11 straight years and I've given them something to cheer for. We've won a lot of games. I've given them great performances. I don't give excuses. I give them my all. I'm available as much or more than anybody in the last 11 years, including last year when I only played [29] games for the first time [because of an abdominal injury.] I've been available more than anybody.

"I've represented the organization and this team as well as anybody has represented their team. And I give them their bang for the buck. When they come see me, they get a show, you know? They get excitement. They get wins. They get playoff experiences. The only thing I haven't done is win the championship. I think people don't give enough credit. We're in an era of, 'How many rings you got?' And, 'Well, this person didn't win [one].' That's why I want to win one so bad just to have that top off everything that I've already done. I do think we discredit people for not having won a championship. The way they talk about Charles Barkley is crazy. It's Charles Barkley! It's crazy."

He takes a breath.

"To give that experience to people on a consistent basis for years and years and years, I look out there and I see my jersey everywhere," Lillard said. "The love hasn't faded. [Not like], 'Oh, we loved Dame for his first six years.' Like, I'm seeing my jersey out there consistently and it's been over a decade. Other than a championship, what more can I give?"

LILLARD IS FLOATINGin the crystal blue waters just off the coast of Capri. It's a picturesque island destination in Italy's Bay of Naples, replete with Michelin restaurants, famous grottos, luxury hotels and breathtaking views. It's the fall of 2021, and Lillard is on his honeymoon, but his mind is on a recent report that he would demand a trade -- one he quickly and strongly disputed on Twitter.

The author of the report held their ground, and Lillard pushed back, saying it wasn't true. His pushback made headlines, then it faded from the discourse. But months later on a boat halfway around the world, Lillard lingered. The rapper who goes by "Dame D.O.L.L.A" was listening to a specific beat and started typing out lyrics on his phone.

"Dame Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, Bradley Beal, trill...

Me not wanting to join a super team might end up being my Achilles' heel...

Hector, I'm on my shield...

Trying to get next to Freak and Dirk on that lonely hill...

Now my goal's revealed so f--- you, the reporters thinking my homies squealed"

Lillard invoking Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dirk Nowitzki is no accident. He admires that both not only won championships, but did it with the only organizations that they'd ever played for, outside the league's glamor markets and after years of postseason runs that ultimately fell short, with calls for them to potentially leave their teams.

"Giannis, people said he needed to leave Milwaukee, they've been struggling in the playoffs, they've been losing in the first round -- all these different stuff," Lillard said. "I'm sure that championship is very, very fulfilling. I'm sure it freed him. He's playing with a different type of peace and comfort."

Lillard thinks of Nowitzki the same way.

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"I remember Dirk killing it when Steve Nash was on his team," Lillard said. "Killing it. When they had the old Dallas Mavericks uniforms and his hair was cut short -- all the way to the year he won MVP [2007] and they were No. 1 in the West. Then they lose to the Warriors."

After a remarkable season, during which Nowitzki's Mavericks posted a franchise-record 67 wins and earned the Western Conference's top seed, they faced the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. Lillard was in Oakland then, and he remembers well the improbable, historic series upset from the "We Believe" Warriors. Nowitzki was so upset that he threw a trash can at a wall at Oracle Arena, leaving a large dent.

"And Dirk just kept going," Lillard said.

Nowitzki had made the Finals the year before, falling to Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat after leading that series 2-0. He wouldn't return to the Finals until 2011 -- to again face the Heat.

"The time that he ends up winning is against LeBron James when he decides to go to Miami with Chris Bosh and D-Wade," Lillard continued. "Like, what are the chances?"

Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Lillard considers the uncertainty from both angles, the good and the bad.

"Then you look at Phoenix," he said. "They lose a championship [2021], come back next year, have another great season, then they don't make it out of the playoffs. Now, they're struggling. They're in the same boat as us. Boston lost last year, then they come out on fire, what if they come up short? What if somebody knocks them off in the first round or the second round after this great season? We're struggling right now, but what if we hit our stride at the right time?"

That Boston team he referenced provides hope. On Jan. 21, 2022, the Celtics lost 109-105 on their home court to a Trail Blazers team playing without Lillard to fall to 23-24 on the season. They then went 28-7 the rest of the season and took a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals before falling to the Warriors.

"I'm not saying that just because they did it that it means we're going to do it," Lillard said of Boston's turnaround, "but it just shows you just never know when it's going to happen"

At the practice facility, Lillard's eyes often watch his teammates, who are practicing on a nearby court. He can take them only so far, but he needs them to go further. And as he considers the words that he penned on that boat in Capri, about not wanting to join a super team, about trying to reach "the lonely hill" and join Antetokounmpo and Nowitzki atop it, Lillard seems to change, becoming more serious. He believes in the journey, as he says. He appreciates what he's achieved. He knows there is more to do, and he makes eye contact, giving the sense that whatever he says next is something he believes down to the marrow of his bones.

"To that point," Lillard said, "I'm also willing to die on that hill."

LILLARD HAS LONGbelieved if he applies himself, he can deliver. With his team's recent struggles, he felt backed into a corner. When he woke from a pregame nap before the Jan. 12 game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, his mentality was different.

"I knew," he would later say, "I was going to impose myself."

But on one of his first shots, he lands on another player's foot and one of his injured ankles flares up -- he'd tweaked both of them in the loss to Orlando and whether he'd even be available for this game was in question. But from afar, nothing seems amiss. Wearing the team's "Statement Edition" uniforms, which he helped design, Lillard scores eight of the team's first 12 points, sandwiching a pair of long 3s around a layup. He finishes a layup with 8:13 in the second quarter to give his team a 14-point lead, which would stand as their largest of the game.

AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Lillard, even with suspect ankles, seems motivated to end the losing streak, and he finishes the first half with 25 points. In the second half, he'd score 25 more, giving him a season-high 50, his 13th career 50-point game -- the eighth most in NBA history.

Lillard was now responsible for each of the past 10 50-point games in team history, becoming the ninth player in history to own that many 50-point contests for a single team -- a list that includes Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Allen Iverson. In the past 10 seasons, only three players have 10 or more 50-point games: Lillard, James Harden and Stephen Curry.

But the Cavaliers had overcome a double-digit deficit to win by six, extending the Trail Blazers' losing streak to five games. The loss placed Portland at 19-22 at the halfway mark of the 2022-23 campaign. When the buzzer sounded, Lillard solemnly placed one hand on the back of his head, looked at the court and quickly disappeared into the tunnel toward the locker room.

"We've got to be better for him," Trail Blazers forward Jerami Grant said after the loss. "Especially when he plays like this."

But how?

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The Trail Blazers made a series of offseason moves to build around their star, re-signing guard Anfernee Simons and veteran center Jusuf Nurkic and acquiring Grant from Detroit. They drafted dynamic guard Shaedon Sharpe seventh overall. Gone is former backcourt running mate CJ McCollum, whom the team traded to the New Orleans Pelicans last season. Portland is in the middle, a precarious place to be in the NBA, but one rival general manager said the middle is not as dire as it seems.

"The Toronto Raptors were in the middle," the GM said. "People were talking about, 'What is the plan?' In one fell swoop, they got Kawhi Leonard and won a title. The Trail Blazers could become a contender by trading for a star."

​​Other GMs offer differing views on Portland and Lillard's role.

"It's easy to be loyal when they're giving you that much money," one said.

Another made a similar remark while adding that if Portland aims to become a contender with its current roster, considerable development and perhaps unrealistic patience would be required from Lillard, whose own career is closer to the end than the beginning.

"If he can be supportive of that development," the second GM said, "then he'll be the only one his age that can do it."

Multiple GMs remarked that Lillard's scoring would be required to keep the Trail Blazers competitive, but, one wondered, could he also strike a balance and take a backseat when necessary to help expedite his young teammates' development? Ultimately, the GM said, it's a tricky -- perhaps impossible -- needle to thread.

After the loss to Cleveland, Billups was asked about the team's goal for the season.

"I mean, we're trying to get to the playoffs and be dangerous, man," Billups said.

Bruce Ely/Portland Trail Blazers

Cronin describes a balance of not being hasty in decisions and taking a long-term approach for multiple seasons rather than focusing on the immediacy of a run this season. He says his relationship with Lillard is collaborative and respectful instead of the adversarial, leverage-heavy dynamic that exists elsewhere between star players and team management. They've spent hours going over the salary cap and various maneuvers, with Lillard learning enough that Cronin has joked Lillard knows just as much about the cap as he does.

Cronin and Lillard met during Lillard's pre-draft interview roughly a decade ago at a Portland-area restaurant. Cronin, then a team scout and salary cap analyst, had sat in on hundreds of pre-draft interviews at that point, and he knew how challenging they could be for a young player, especially given that this one had the late Paul Allen, then the team's owner, at the table. But over the hours, Cronin was struck by Lillard's poise and confidence, and it remains the most impressive pre-draft interview he had ever seen.

"You could tell that he was built for the pressure," Cronin said.

Like Lillard, Cronin is bonded to the Trail Blazers. He's in his 17th season with the team, having started as a basketball operations intern in 2006. He has served as a pro scout/salary cap analyst, the team's director of player personnel and assistant general manager until reaching his current post -- an ascent that's unusual in NBA circles. But, like Lillard, this is the only NBA team Cronin has known. As such, he feels a sort of responsibility as the steward of Lillard's legacy.

"The love hasn't faded. [Not like], 'Oh, we loved Dame for his first six years.' Like, I'm seeing my jersey out there consistently and it's been over a decade. Other than a championship, what more can I give?"Damian Lillard

"I'm the lucky one," Cronin said. "I've seen it each step of the way."

In the locker room after the Cleveland loss, Lillard donned a dark green jacket over a shirt that read, "Nature is not a place to visit. It is our home." After he walked past the photos of his team's history, including himself, Lillard sat at the news conference table.

Just behind the table's backdrop is a framed color photo from Portland's 1977 championship parade, which wound from Veterans Memorial Coliseum on the east side of the Willamette River and moved into the heart of the city. In the photo, Broadway Street is filled from side to side with fans. Some are sitting atop streetlights and signs and lampposts. Some pack fire escapes. It's a sea of glorious humanity, the very image Lillard has dreamed of, and it's only inches away.

A COLD WINTERrain pelts the windshield of a luxury sedan parked outside the gymnasium at Parkrose High School, which sits about nine miles northeast of downtown Portland. Inside the gymnasium, about 1,000 students pack bleachers on both sides for a midafternoon Friday assembly. Molly Ouche, the Parkrose principal, stands at the center of the basketball court.

"If you can hear me, clap once!" she yells. A loud clap echoes through the gym.

"If you can hear me, clap twice!" she yells again. Two more thunderous claps.

Then, she revealed the reason they were gathered in the gym that day.

"Thank you seniors! Thank you juniors! I would like to introduce Portland Trail Blazer Dami..."

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The roars from the students drowned out the rest of her introduction as Lillard headed toward center court.

"It's good to be back," he tells the students, about 12 hours after his 50-point performance against the Cavaliers. "It's been a few years."

Lillard is here for his Respect Program, an anti-bullying initiative that he launched in his rookie season. He partners with Portland-area schools, makes in-person visits and provides athletic gear and Trail Blazers tickets. But, most importantly to him, he encourages students to participate in classes (to increase graduation rates), work hard, show up on time and be kind. It's one of his several charitable endeavors.

When Lillard became the team's all-time leading scorer, the Trail Blazers contributed $18,041 to causes of his choosing; he selected the Special Olympics and his Respect Program, which, at Parkrose, Lillard explains to the students surrounding him.

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He points out how, right now, students may be most concerned with who their friends are, where they sit at lunch, who they're dating -- and how important those things are. But they're not that important, he says.

"It's not about money," he said. "It's not about being popular. It's not about those things. But because I had the right people around me -- I had people encouraging me to do the right things -- they gave me a chance to be successful. The reason that I'm here is because I want to encourage all you guys."

He preaches his ideals. "It doesn't matter how many people know you. It doesn't matter how many points you score on this court or on the field. None of that matters. It's the small things."

Off to the side stands Dr. William Johnson, the president of Moda Health. Johnson met Lillard soon after Lillard was drafted. Like Lillard, Johnson hails from Oakland, and, after a dinner early in Lillard's career, a friendship was forged. Johnson said that his company wanted to help sponsor schools where a high rate of students qualified for a free lunch program, and Lillard said he wanted in. He'd show up at the beginning of the year and help hand out backpacks full of school supplies. He'd stay for hours, sign every piece of memorabilia and shoot around in the gym with them.

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"He loves being motivational to them," Johnson said.

Back at center court, Lillard looks out over the students. "And one of the most important things is, be kind." He tells them that being nice is one thing, but being kind is another, because you never know what someone else is going through.

"If you have all of these things, you already have a great, great chance to be successful," he said. "That's in sports. That's outside of sports. That's in life. Show up, work hard, be kind. That's the standard that I hold myself to."

When he leaves the court, cheers ring out.

"WE LOVE YOU DAME!" a nearby student shouts.

Bruce Ely/Portland Trail Blazers

People often ask Johnson about whether Lillard will leave. He shakes his head. He's met maybe 100 of Lillard's family, many of whom are now in Portland. Including Lillard, his wife and children, about 30 of his family members live in the area. His brother Houston lives there and started his family there as well. His mother, sister, a few cousins, an aunt and her children live there, too. Johnson attended Lillard's wedding in the Santa Barbara area. He tells people that Lillard won't leave, that this is home. The questions don't stop, but his answer doesn't change.

Portland is home.

PERHAPS THE JOURNEYto a title would be easier elsewhere, but among Lillard's core tenants is this one: The grass is not always greener elsewhere. Those in the organization have heard Lillard use this line more often than once. It's a belief that took hold during his youth in Oakland, where family and friends all preached it. He has seen it for himself.

"I look at the NBA," Lillard said. "I just look at how many guys that had a great thing going and then the outside noise creeps in and, even if it's just a little bit, has some influence on the decision that they make and then nobody lives with those consequences but them. And then it ends up not working out. You look at somebody like Kevin Garnett. He did it," -- leaving Minnesota for Boston, where he won a championship in 2008 -- "and it worked out. But he's an outlier.

"But then you look at Russell Westbrook. You leave OKC for Houston, then James [Harden] decided he's leaving, now Russ is traded to D.C., then you get traded from D.C. to the Lakers, now you're on your fourth team in four years and in your second year on the team, everybody is talking about how they should trade you. Now you're coming off the bench. This dude is a Hall of Famer, an MVP. It's an example that the grass isn't always greener." (Lillard's comment came before the Lakers dealt Westbrook to the Utah Jazz, who waived him, freeing Westbrook up to sign with the LA Clippers.)

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Billups, only the second coach Lillard has played for in his NBA career, knows how difficult the journey can be. The former point guard played for seven teams across 17 seasons. He was traded halfway through his rookie season and bounced between the starting lineup and the bench for four different teams before finding a long-term home with the Detroit Pistons. It was with Detroit when the then-27-year-old Billups broke through and won his lone championship, beating a star-laden Los Angeles Lakers team in the 2004 Finals.

Standing on the Trail Blazers' practice court one January afternoon, Billups transports himself back to that moment, and he's overwhelmed.

"Other than having kids and getting married, there's nothing that matches that feeling," Billups said. "Because this is my first love. I haven't put more into anything in the world other than this" -- and here Billups points to the court -- "so to be able to reach that feeling is just crazy."

Billups and Lillard have talked about that 2004 title, and what it meant.

"I just felt that I just validated everything that I ever believed about the game, about myself," he said.

But Billups looks around now and at how the league has changed. There is much to unpack. First, he believes, as Lillard does, that too much emphasis is put on championships.

Bruce Ely/Portland Trail Blazers

"I don't distinguish greatness with championships," Billups said. "There's only one team that can do it. And in this game, a guy can be the best player in the entire series, can dominate the entire series, but if your team is not playing well, you're not going to win. ... This is not tennis. This is not golf. This is a team game."

He looks up at the Trail Blazers' lone 1977 championship banner, hanging on the wall of the facility. That was just the beginning, it was believed. The Trail Blazers' boasted what was then -- and remains -- the NBA's youngest team to win a title, with an average age of 24.19. Bill Walton, the Finals MVP and franchise cornerstone, was just 24. Portland's future looked impossibly bright -- perhaps the start of a dynasty. That next season, the Trail Blazers won 50 of their first 60 games, seemingly destined to repeat. Then Walton fractured his foot.

The team was bounced in the first round, and Walton never played another game for Portland. Pondering that outcome, Billups thinks back to his own title run, recounting how Pistons teammate Tayshaun Prince sprinted the length of the court for a chase-down block of Reggie Miller's layup attempt in the final minutes of Game 2 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, with his team holding a two-point lead on the road. If Prince doesn't execute that game-changing play, then "maybe we don't win it," Billups said. He shakes his head as he thinks back.

"I know what he deserves," Billups said of Lillard. "And he's a winner. He's got a winning spirit. He plays the game to win. And as a coach, I'm going to put my best foot forward every night and I'm going to be prepared for him."

Billups rattles off everything Lillard has already done: the franchise scoring mark and being one of 10 active players to be named to the NBA's 75th-anniversary team in 2022.

"He'll have a statue," Billups said. "And he's got a lot of basketball to play. We're going to try to do whatever we can to get Dame a championship. But say fate intervenes and he doesn't win a championship, that's going to have nothing to do with his legacy. The way he chased it, to me, adds to it. Stuck with it. Didn't go join this guy, that guy. Because I've always felt, me personally, that if that's the way that you're going to get it, if you're just going to chase the best team, a super team and this and that -- they're not going to feel the same way that I felt when I won the championship. They're going to get the ring, but they're going to feel like, 'Damn, it would've felt better the other way.'"

If traditional NBA centers became dinosaurs as the game shifted, then so too are homegrown stars who have stayed with their organizations for upwards of a decade. Lillard is one of four active players with more than 700 games played who've spent their entire career with one franchise. The other three -- Udonis Haslem, Curry and Draymond Green -- have won a combined 11 rings.

Lillard knows he is part of a small tribe, perhaps an endangered species of NBA star. But he aspires to be part of an even more exclusive club: Since the NBA merger in 1976, only 10 players have spent 10 or more seasons with one team and won at least one title. The list is a who's who, including Antetokounmpo and Nowitzki. Ask him for more perspective, and he will say that now isn't the time.

"I'm in the middle of it," he said. "I'm in the fight."


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