By Sean Highkin
PORTLAND -- Damian Lillard is frustrated. Just over a week removed from the defining shot of his young NBA career, he and the Portland Trail Blazers have run up against an unsolvable riddle. No matter what they do, how well they execute, the buzzsaw that is the San Antonio Spurs has always been three steps ahead.
On May 2, Lillard cemented his place among Blazers immortals with one of the greatest shots in playoff history, a cold-blooded buzzer-beating three that sent the Houston Rockets packing and gave Portland its first postseason series win since 2000. Lillard has assumed the mantle of leader all season for a surprising Blazers team. LaMarcus Aldridge got the MVP buzz, but it was Lillard's cool-headed playmaking and penchant for dramatic shots that lifted Portland from fringe playoff team to serious postseason threat. Now, trailing 3-0 to the Spurs, Lillard and the Blazers are beginning to see how much work they have left to do to make the next leap, from postseason threat to genuine title contender.
"It's just growth," Lillard said after the Blazers' 118-103 Game 3 loss to the Spurs. "Understanding what it takes to get it done, not only in one round but two or three or four. We're just seeing them put on a clinic on how to execute, how to guard every option of our offense, how to be consistent at it."
Lillard's frustration showed after the loss, but another emotion was there in equal measure: flat-out amazement. Again and again in the Moda Center locker room, he praised the Spurs' trust and reliability, which have been developed under coach Gregg Popovich and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan during a run of title contention that hasn't let up for nearly as long as the 23-year-old Lillard has been alive.
"They're a well-oiled machine," he said. "They're constantly moving, making good passes, defending really well. Everything is just flowing for them. It's like they've seen this movie before."
In Portland's first-round series against the Rockets, Lillard averaged 25.5 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting. But the Spurs haven't let him get anything easy. He's averaging 19 points per game and shooting 37.5 percent from the field against San Antonio.
"Everything I do, they're crowding the area," Lillard said of his struggles against the Spurs. "It's not easy to pull up for a jumper with a lot of guys there, get to the rim with a lot of guys there. They're tough. They're crowding the space a lot more than they were in the regular season."
The Blazers split their regular-season series with the Spurs 2-2, which led most talking heads and media members (yours truly included) to believe Portland could give San Antonio a series more competitive than this bloodbath. The 15-point loss in Game 3 was the closest margin. Over the past 17 years, the Spurs have perfected the art of finding the extra gear when they need it. No San Antonio player averaged over 30 minutes per game this season. In most playoff series, studying the tape against an opponent in the regular season can be instructive. With the Spurs, Lillard is quickly realizing that all bets are off.
"We lost 3-1 to Houston in the regular season and we came out and won 4-2 [in the first round]," he said. "It's kind of irrelevant what happened in the regular season. [The Spurs] rested guys a lot. Now they're at full strength and all their guys are playing well. They're outplaying us right now."
"The biggest thing we have to understand about this team is that they never stop playing," Aldridge added. "If you guard their first option, they're going to have a second option. If you guard the second option, they've got a third option. That's one of the biggest things I've learned about this team. They're persistent. They're not going to change, they're going to run their stuff over and over and over and wait for you to mess up and once you mess up, they make you pay. … They're just consistent. They play championship basketball and that's what we have to get to."
Aldridge, a three-time All-Star in his eighth year in the NBA, is the sole survivor of the would-be Big Three in Portland that also included Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. He's made the playoffs three times previously, all ending in first-round eliminations. This is the best team he's had since the 2008-09 squad that also won 54 games, and with no serious injury concerns this time around, they have the potential to go even further. But it's going to take time to get there.
Lillard in many ways represents the actualization of the promise Roy had before years of knee injuries forced him into early retirement. Roy had Hall of Fame potential and a similar flair for the dramatic. But he was never able to get Portland out of the first round before his body broke down. In just his second year in the league, Lillard has pushed the Blazers over that hump -- only to learn just how much further there is to climb.
"It's a step up every round," he said. "You're getting closer and closer, and the competition level, how good the other team is, goes up also. The Spurs are a championship-level team, a team that understands what it takes to get it done."
Lillard is as fierce a competitor as they come, but his voice and his words betray a realization that he and the Blazers have their work cut out for them, not just in this series but in their long-term quest to become a team people think of in the same breath as the group that could knock them out of the playoffs as soon as Monday.
There's a little frustration, just because we've been playing so hard," Lillard said. "A lot of things aren't going right. When you play hard for a full possession and then have one slip-up, miss a layup, and they just drain it, it's hard.
"We still believe, I can tell you that. Everyone in the locker room believes we can get it done. It's just hard to get over that hump."
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Sean Highkin has covered the NBA for USA Today, ESPN's TrueHoop Network, The Classical, and other places around the web. He lives in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.