If not for Damian Lillard, the NBA would have staged six Game 7s during the final weekend of a phenomenal first round of the 2014 playoffs.
Not that there was anything wrong with the ending Lillard delivered Friday.
The former Weber State guard’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer, on a play that started with 0.9 seconds remaining, gave Portland a 99-98 victory in Game 6 vs. Houston.
The huge shot was just another in a series of big moments for Lillard, as the Trail Blazers won their first playoff series in 14 years and advanced to meet San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals, beginning Tuesday. In his two seasons, Lillard has made an immediate impact unlike any Utah college product’s in any pro sport.
As the No. 6 pick in the 2012 draft, he was a unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year last season and became an All-Star this year. It’s been an amazing climb, for a player who had missed most of the 2010-11 season at Weber State with a broken foot, and was not even viewed as a first-round pick until the late stages of the following season, when he was still a junior in eligibility.
And then he rocketed up everybody’s draft board, landing in Portland. The Jazz knew all about Lillard, having scouted him extensively in Ogden, and at one time must have liked their chances of getting him.
Via the Deron Williams trade with the then-New Jersey Nets, the Jazz owned Golden State’s first-round pick, as long as it was outside of the top seven. The Warriors played just badly enough down the stretch to tie for the seventh-worst record, then won a drawing and held the No. 7 slot after the lottery.
If not for that sequence of events, the Jazz could have had the No. 8 pick. That would have increased their chances of getting Lillard, but Portland — which had the Nets’ first-round pick, via the Gerald Wallace trade — obviously loved him as well.
So it seems the Jazz simply were not destined to draft Lillard. Having traded their own first-round pick (No. 18) to Minnesota in the Al Jefferson deal, they ended up with one player in the 2012 draft class, second-round choice Kevin Murphy.
The Jazz were able to use that conditional pick from Golden State in 2013 as part of their strategy to move up to No. 9 and take point guard Trey Burke. That explains how general manager Dennis Lindsey recently said the Williams trade eventually brought Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Marvin Williams (via a trade for Devin Harris) and “half of Trey Burke” to Utah.
Burke shows signs of becoming a very good NBA player, with attributes that include a willingness to take big shots. But he’s a long way from Lillard’s status in the league. In the six games vs. Houston, Lillard averaged 25.5 points, 6.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets’ Game 7 win over Toronto gave Williams his first playoff series victory since 2010, when the Jazz beat Denver. Road teams are 24-95 in Game 7s in NBA history, and Williams and Andrei Kirilenko can claim two of those wins, with the Jazz at Houston in 2007 and with Brooklyn at Toronto on Sunday.