PORTLAND, Ore. — A long time ago, when Michael Jordan wasn't finished with his final comeback yet, Kobe Bryant sat in the Rose Garden in Portland and said, "There are only two killers in this league."
Jordan's 51 now, a fat cat on the sidelines owning a team. Bryant hasn't made a playoff appearance in two years. The show must go on, and it has—as seen by the most competitive first round in NBA postseason history.
But even better than good shows are great show-stoppers.
And we just saw 23-year-old Damian Lillard drive a freakin' stake through the first NBA playoff series he ever played.
The Rose Garden has been renamed the Moda Center here in Portland, and this city hadn't seen its one big-time team win a playoff series since before Jordan went to the Washington Wizards. That changed Friday night, when the Trail Blazers' second-year guard accepted the inbounds pass with 0.9 seconds left and proceeded to terminate Dwight Howard, James Harden and the Houston Rockets with a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
The Blazers won 99-98—Lillard wiping away what would've been a difficult Game 7 for Portland to win on the road, claiming the Blazers' first series in 14 years and abruptly ending the first season of Houston's celebrated Howard-Harden partnership.
It wasn't Lillard's first execution, and it won't be his last.
Check out these last two words, because only a killer would add the last two words Lillard did in his postgame comment:
"It's definitely the biggest shot of my life—so far."
As far as formal fame goes, Lillard is merely, as they introduce him at home games, "the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year."
But he can play: The only players with more points (3,257) and assists (988) than Lillard in their first two NBA seasons are Oscar Robertson, Tiny Archibald, Allen Iverson and LeBron James.
And he can shoot: His 403 three-pointers blow away the most any other player has made in his first two years (Klay Thompson's 322). Lillard has also now made more threes (23) than anyone in these playoffs.
Yet, most awe-inspiring, he can close.
"I don't know that it could have been anymore dramatic," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of this latest grand finale.
There's always a bit of myth-making in this sort of thing, celebrating the makes and sending the misses under the rug, but the truth is that Bryant's and Jordan's overall mental toughness forged the belief that they were clutch as much as individual shot-making.
Now Lillard is 4-of-12 on go-ahead shots in the final five seconds of games, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And as Bryant and Jordan know well, part of the building the big building is being open to digging the deep ditch:
It's misleading to call it fearlessness. What it is, really, is a willingness to fail.
When Lillard missed a buzzer-beater in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on March 3, he finished his postgame interviews and didn't leave. He lingered at the locker room door. Lillard stood and rehashed over and over with veteran Mo Williams his not quite selling the shot fake enough.
Lillard did not want to let the feeling of failure go.
There are an awful lot of fantastic players who have no interest in owning failure.
Howard is one of them. He had a terrific series and scored 13 fourth-quarter points Friday night. He did also miss four of his last five free throws to take some shine off that output.
Afterward, he pointed fingers at his younger teammates for relaxing and losing focus. The closest to ownership he came was adding one clause—"including myself at times."
The last two words—a killer would never add those last two words.
Then Howard padded his own resume by exaggerating his level of success in reaching "the top."
"Nothing is easy," Howard said. "I've been to the finals. I've been to the Eastern Conference finals. I've been to the top. And it's not easy getting there. You've got to make everything count."
Howard, 28, signed with the Rockets so he could break away from older players such as Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol telling him what to do. So if the young Rockets failed to get Howard's veteran message about making everything count, first that's karma—and second that's partly Howard's failure to lead.
Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge is another fantastic player who had a terrific series—who also happens not to be cold-blooded. He acknowledged when he missed two potentially costly free throws late in Game 4 that after missing the first he was so rattled that he changed all of his mechanics on the second.
It's funny, though, how the moment tends to find the killers, because they don't think about feeling weird or rattled or scared.
The Blazers' last play had Aldridge inside as the first option, with Lillard on the outside as the backup. Neither Aldridge nor Lillard had scored in the fourth quarter.
Aldridge struggled to get open, but Lillard made sure he was in position.
There Lillard was, standing on the opposite side of the court from where Nicolas Batum would inbound the ball. Already like a boss.
Lillard stood coldly, exaggerating himself as limp and dead, only his eyes fully alive and anticipating the moment when referee Mike Callahan handed Batum the ball as a light turning green.
Before anyone else could react, it was go time.
There was the arm swat to create initial space from Houston's Chandler Parsons, then jetting past two players on each team. A quick clap-clap to get Batum's eyes off Aldridge and onto him.
Catch, shoot. Win, preen.
The shot goes down in NBA history now, and in live action it felt like Lillard was almost coming out of nowhere because it all happened so fast. Nothing comes out of nowhere, though. It simply doesn't exist. That crap is just a convenient dream for the lazy.
Lillard's moment included both the shot and the pre-shot. He put in the work someone does to position himself to be successful when he wants the chance for success more than everybody else wants the chance for success.
And killing is just one person's will outlasting another's in that ultimate moment.
"He lives for those moments," Stotts said of Lillard.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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