There are lots of reasons the Blazers won 13 games in a row.
The team is healthy and productive when most squads are hobbled and exhausted. They're also playing defense Portland hasn't seen since 'Sheed was on the squad. Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and Jusuf Nurkic compose a flexible, multi-use front court rotation perfectly suited to guarding the modern game. And the team is still unleashing a reliably modern offensive attack, handcrafted by Terry Stotts, the most underrated coach in the NBA.
But if you're feeling simplistic: It's Damian Lillard.
Lillard is perhaps the most perfect Portland Trail Blazer of all time, a perpetually underrated guard with a determination to win that moves the spirit of even the most jaded old crusto. He's been on fire, driving and shooting and averaging 30 points and six assists a game over a full month when the Blazers never lost.
Here are four shots that defined the latest installment of Lillard Time.
Win: Feb. 14 over Golden State
Shot: The streak began with a Valentine's Day win over the slacking Warriors. The Warriors, possibly the most talented NBA team ever constructed, have been farting their way into the playoffs a little, clearly slacking on defense and resting dudes with whatever injuries they can think of while still managing a second seed.
Dame sipped the blood in the water.
This shot is a microcosm of the victory: Lillard flipping around Kevin Durant and finishing with a perfectly angled reverse layup, using craft and muscle in equal measure to fend off the long-armed Durant's block attempt.
Win: Feb. 24 over Phoenix
Shot: With the Blazers flailing against a terrible Suns team in the fourth quarter, Lillard spots a missed Shabazz Napier shot, heaves himself as far in the air as possible, catches the ball and dunks it home. It's a heedless, headfirst run at the rim—and it sparks a last-second comeback (Lillard also hits the buzzer-beating game winner, of course).
The Blazers should have lost this game. Their third-quarter performance, outscored 31-16, was that of a team huffing WD40 from a bag and expecting it to function like gasoline. It was the kind of deflated road performance that is the trademark of the Blazer franchise, who have always tended to flex at home and eat shit on the road.
Dame just decided they wouldn't lose. So they didn't.
Win: March 5 over the Los Angeles Lakers
Shot: Lillard lifts the Blazers on another lackluster night, against the team fans loathe the most. He hits four 3-pointers in a row, including this one that causes TV play-by-play man Kevin Calabro to wail as if touched by the Holy Ghost.
Win: March 12 over Miami
Shot: Lillard connects on a 3-pointer for the franchise-record 52nd consecutive game—this time hitting the shot even while being fouled by Goran Dragic.
If Steph Curry is his generation's most precedent-setting offensive player, Lillard is the first player in his wake to adopt the tactics and mindset that will almost certainly come to define basketball in the next decade or so. He takes three pointers like a maniac, even though his shot isn't constructed in a laboratory like Curry's. It's rough and imperfect, like the Blazers.
But lately? The man can't miss.
Lillard's imperfections fall perfectly in line with the history of the Blazers, and of the kinds of players and teams the fan base has found themselves in thrall to. Clyde Drexler was the shooting guard who wasn't Jordan, the Walton teams had dynastic potential scattered to the winds of injury and mistrust, Damon Stoudamire got in his own way, and LaMarcus Aldridge made his time in Portland a one-man tribute to the arts of coming up just short.
Imperfection, and working to exceed that imperfection, is the calling card of the franchise since the beginning. It's what makes someone playing in the Rose Quarter worth rooting for in the first place. Lillard, an under-recruited four-year player at a mid-major college whose entire career is a tribute to outrunning expectations, fits.
He might be the most perfect-imperfect due in the team's history.