PORTLAND -- The great ones have "it." The truly great ones get a chance to show "it" early in their careers.
The ability to make a big shot, or make a big play late in a game is a wonderful quality to have. The desire to take that shot, or make that play despite the high risk for failure, is an even better attribute to possess. It makes leaders out of men.
The great Lawrence Taylor once said of his Giants' teammate Phil Simms, "...when he made that throw, he became my guy right there, and I knew we could win a Super Bowl with Phil Simms as our Quarterback." At that point Simms won the team over. Or at least won over the teams' best player. (For the record, the Giants won the Super Bowl that season.)
On Sunday night the Blazers were on the brink of surrendering a 16-point lead to the New Orleans Hornets. Tied with seconds to go, they put the ball in Damian Lillard's hands and he delivered. A 3-pointer, which left only 3 tenths of a second on the clock. Too little time for the Hornets to get off a legitimate 3-point attempt of their own.
Photos: Blazers rookie Damian Lillard
Game over. Career launched. Because it's one thing to perform before crunch time. It's quite another to do it when everything is on the line. Quarterbacks in the NFL have authored hall of fame careers out of doing such things. In fact, their exploits are eventually given names like; "The Catch, or "The Drive." Michael Jordan is just another great player without all he did in the final two minutes of games. Derek Jeter is great. Derek Jeter in the late innings of playoff games, is Cooperstown-great.
Let's not put Damian Lillard in Springfield, Mass. just yet. He's got a long way to go before he's welcomed into the Basketball Hall of Fame. But he's certainly taken his first step, by taking and making that first big shot.
"We saw you, we saw that shot. Great job," he said two days later while attending the Blazers' Read to Achieve" program at Montclair Elementary school, of the messages he received from friends and family.
Lillard was the Co-MVP of the Las Vegas NBA Summer League back in July. In November, his first month in the NBA, he was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month. In December, at roughly the NBA's quarter-pole, he's the leading candidate to be the leagues' Rookie of the Year.
All of the accolades are nice. They justify the team having used its' 6th overall pick in Junes' draft to select the point guard. But the big shots are what will separate him from the pack. Taking and making those are what will make his Blazers teammates follow his lead. An important quality to have as the teams' "lead" guard.
"We had confidence in Damian to make those shots even before Sunday," said head coach Terry Stotts following Tuesday's practice in Tualatin.
That's important. But it's more important that he's willing to take those shots. They are a high risk, high reward scenario. The "moment' isn't always embraced by every player. But those who have "it" think nothing of it. "Just trying to make a play to help my team win," Lillard said.
They won. And in the process, Damian Lillard may have won over his teammates...