Scott Bamforth knows Damian Lillard better than most. For two seasons, they shared the backcourt as teammates at Weber State. Lillard eventually left as an NBA lottery pick while Bamforth, after breaking Lillard’s school records for 3-point shooting, landed in Spain a year later.
They still keep in touch via text message, Bamforth said, and get together for the occasional offseason workout. But while little about Lillard surprises him anymore — Bamforth knew his former teammate was bound for big things — Bamforth has detected a subtle change in Lillard’s demeanor in recent weeks.
“You can see there’s a difference in him where he truly knows and believes he’s the best player on the court every time he plays,” Bamforth said. “There’s just no doubt in his mind. It doesn’t matter if he’s on the court with LeBron James or if he’s on the court with James Harden — anyone. And I feel like everyone else knows it, too.”
On Tuesday night, Lillard left his imprint on another opponent. In leading the Portland Trail Blazers to a 100-93 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers (and the aforementioned James) in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series, Lillard collected 34 points and 5 assists. Game 2 of their best-of-seven series is Thursday night.
“The job is far away from being done,” Lillard said, “but I’m proud of our effort.”
Bamforth, 31, watched the game from his home in Tempe, Arizona, where he was preparing for his trip this week to France, where he will play this coming season for Le Mans of LNB Pro A, the country’s top league. Lillard’s exploits have been both familiar and new to Bamforth — somehow even more explosive, somehow even more refined.
They were all on display during one stretch of the fourth quarter, which Lillard kicked off by burying a 30-foot jumper — and dancing to “Blow the Whistle” by rapper Too Short as he settled into his defensive stance at the other end. A few possessions later, Lillard pulled up from 36 feet to swish a 3-pointer over the top of the Lakers’ Anthony Davis. Then, on Portland’s next trip up the court, he passed out of swarming pressure to Carmelo Anthony, who drained a 3-pointer of his own.
The right shots. The right passes. And another tour de force for a point guard who has fashioned the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World into his personal stage.
“He can dance all he wants if he’s going to shoot from half-court and score 30,” Blazers guard CJ McCollum said.
Bamforth recalled how they were working out a couple of summers ago when Lillard pulled him aside. He had noticed Bamforth’s footwork coming off a screen — Bamforth had dribbled to his right before elevating for a jump shot — and wanted to know everything about how he had done it in microscopic detail.
“He was like, ‘If I can get that pull-up going to my right, it’s over,’” Bamforth recalled him saying. “And I kind of thought I had already learned that move from him — like, ‘What are you even talking about? You’re Dame Lillard!’ But if he sees something that he can improve, he’s going to ask — and he’ll ask anyone.”
It was a small but significant moment that stuck with Bamforth because it got at the essence of the Lillard he had always known: his determination, his dedication.
Lillard’s path through the NBA has included its share of postseason disappointments. Nothing has come easily for the Blazers. Now they have another opportunity in front of them — an unexpected one, given the circumstances, but one they earned. Lillard seems intent on making the most of it.
“He’s found another level,” Bamforth said.