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Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard sat down for his post-game availability with his right hand wrapped in ice and sporting a Marvelous Marvin Hagler sweatshirt.
Lillard, perhaps the NBA’s biggest boxing fan, looked like he just gone through a 12-round fight Tuesday night. And while it looked like the New Orleans Pelicans were going to run away with the decision, Lillard led the charge as the Trail Blazers fought back to snatch a victory in the final minute in a 125-124 win.
Lillard finished with 50 points and 10 assists as Portland overcame a 17-point deficit in the final 5 minutes, 55 seconds to come away with the victory. There wasn’t a game-winning shot this time around, but Lillard did score seven points in the final minute.
The Pelicans had a chance to put the game away, but Brandon Ingram missed two free throws with 7.2 to play when New Orleans had a three-point lead.
“After he missed the two free throws, I was like, ‘I’m sending this to overtime.'” Lillard said.
But that chance didn’t arrive like he wanted. On the ensuing possession, the Pelicans fouled Lillard before he could get a shot up and sent him to the line. He knocked down both free throws with 5.2 left to cut the lead to one.
On the inbounds play that followed, the Blazers caught a break. Nickeil Alexander-Walker fumbled away the inbounds pass from Lonzo Ball, giving it back to the Blazers.
“Once the guy went to the line and missed the free throws and once we had that scramble on the inbounds, I knew if we got the ball back that he was going to win it, and he did it,” said Blazers guard CJ McCollum, who returned Tuesday after having not played since Jan. 16.
With 1.2 seconds left, Lillard was fouled by Eric Bledsoe just inside the 3-point line. He made those two free throws to give the Blazers the lead. Ball’s long inbounds pass to Zion Williamson connected but Williamson’s contested hook shot outside the lane didn’t fall.
Portland became the first team this season to come back from at least 17 points down in the final six minutes of a game. According to ESPN Stats and Information research, NBA teams were 0-236 in such situations this season.
“We needed some things to go our way,” Lillard said of the comeback. “B.I. misses two free throws. Then we come down back on the defensive end and on the inbounds pass, they fumble it out of bounds. So some things had to go our way on top of us putting stops together and making timely plays on defense and offense.”
As timely as Portland’s stops were, a lot of the success late came down to Dame Time. Lillard needed only 20 shots to score his 50 points — he went 13-of-20 from the field, 6-of-13 from deep and 18-of-18 from the free throw line, tying his career high in made free throws.
According to the Elias Stats Bureau, Lillard’s 20 field goal attempts were the third-fewest in a 50-point game in the shot-clock era behind Adrian Dantley’s 17 attempts in 1980 and Willie Burton’s 19 in 1994.
Also from Elias, it was Lillard’s third 50-point, 10-assist game, tying him with Tiny Archibald and Russell Westbrook for the second-most such games in NBA history, trailing only James Harden (eight).
It was Lillard’s 12th 50-point game of his career, passing Allen Iverson for fourth-most since the merger (1976-77). Lillard is now tied with LeBron James.
Portland went 31-of-31 from the free throw line. It’s the most free throw attempts in franchise history without a miss and they became the first team to shoot at least 31-of-31 from the line since the Phoenix Suns went 32-of-32 against the Seattle SuperSonics on Feb. 8, 2008.
In the final 5:55, Portland outscored the Pelicans, 25-7. The Blazers held New Orleans to 3-of-10 shooting and 1-of-3 from the 3-point line while also forcing the Pelicans into three turnovers in that stretch.
“You don’t make a comeback like that if you don’t play well on both ends,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “You have to play good defense for sure. There was some desperation, obviously. Can we sustain that level of desperation for 48 minutes? I don’t know. Certainly that was a big part of it.”
Defense has been an issue for the Blazers a lot this season. After Tuesday, Portland is 29th in the league in defensive rating (116.4).
Still, it was the Blazers’ sixth win this season when trailing in the final minute, two more than any other team so far this season.
But for Lillard, if the defense can step up, then Portland won’t need to fight its way back and look for the knockout punch late in games as it has recently.
“When we put it together mentally and we commit to that and become a better defensive team, that’s when we’ll level up overall. But we keep talking about it. We have to defend better and be consistent and all these things but, I mean, we gotta do it. That’s what it comes down to. It’s as simple as that,” Lillard said.
“We gotta come out here and be committed to it and hold ourselves to that. As long as we don’t do that, we’ll win games and be who we’ve always been, but until we decide to take that step as a group … that’s when we’ll look at games and be like, ‘We won that game by 15,’ or ‘We won that game by 18.’ People will expect a great effort from us in the playoffs. I think that’s when the true respect will come when we can sustain a certain level defensively.”