PORTLAND — Damian Lillard had just hit the first game-winning shot of his NBA career and so — like the rest of us would have — he celebrated. He raised both arms high, his index fingers indicating who's No. 1.
Then Lillard remembered. He was supposed to make that shot.
Moments before during a timeout, Lillard listened as Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool told him to believe in himself, believe his shot would win the game. It wasn't a question, still Lillard answered: "I do."
And now here he was bouncing around like a "Price is Right" Showcase Showdown contestant?
So, in a flash, Lillard lowered his arms and emphatically nodded his head as 18,772 fans lost their minds. Nodding as if to simply tell us: Yeah, I made the shot. That's what I do.
He's a confident kid, that Lillard.
The one who leads his rookie class in scoring, assists, minutes played and now with a game-winning bucket on Sunday against the New Orleans Hornets — his 53rd 3-pointer of the season — also he's best in shooting percentage from beyond the arc. This checklist provides just one example why Lillard has reason to be as confident as he is.
But how do you explain this guy?
"Yeah, he's the Rookie of the Year," fellow first-year player and teammate Will Barton said about Lillard. "Except when I look into the mirror."
Sunday night at the Rose Garden presented the best microscope moment to examine the uniqueness of these two Blazer rookies.
To understand this though, try to remember the Cars.com television spot when a man walks into a dealership and can't contain the creepy, mini-me escaping from his shoulder. It's his confidence. He looks embarrassed as his little thing stakes claim to a new car while in song, falsetto voice and all.
So, just picture Lillard on Sunday — an imaginary second head peering out of his back — as he crossed his dribble behind Luke Babbitt’s screen, raised and fired. No matter what, even though he had missed nine shots that night, Lillard knew his last one would fall.
“Every time I pull up to take the shot, I think it’s going in,” Lillard said.
Now, envision Barton in front of his stall later that night. He’s not even the most accomplished rookie on his side of the locker room, as Victor Claver, two stalls down, has a couple starts under his belt. Even so, his little confident Barton head will break out in song and crow that Barton would’ve made that game-winner, too.
“Anybody who knows me will tell you I really believe stuff like that and that’s no knock to Dame — Dame is phenomenal. I love his game. ... He’s really good, and I respect him,” Barton said. “(But) confidence is just belief in yourself. Believing in your abilities and what you can do, just having a strong belief that you can get the job done. It’s just something I think anyone who’s trying to be good or great at something has to have.”
Lillard and Barton possess the type of confidence that’s not born from the roars of fans and butt slaps from coaches, but from the belief that they belong here.
Kids these days may call it “swag,” — and it helps enlighten why Barton rocks yellow skinny jeans and tweets about “Twilight.” It’s just that he’s confident enough in himself to dress like he’s fresh off the pages of Teen Vogue and rave about movies that could threaten anybody else’s man card.
But it’s not just a played-out pop culture phrase (Side note: can the word “swag” die a slow and painful death already?)
Confidence has a purpose. Confidence can cripple fear and knock the snot out of doubt.
Like when Lillard needed a swift kick in his pants after he had suffered a crack of the fifth metatarsal of his right foot during his junior season at Weber State. Lillard was the reigning Big Sky Player of the Year at the time, but the injury didn’t just sit him down for the remainder of the season. His foot was broken, and his psyche was fractured.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be the same because I haven’t ever been hurt before, especially it being my foot,” Lillard recalled. “I was kinda thinking about it a lot like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to be the same again athletically.’ ”
But over time, Lillard returned to the gym and found his confidence right where he left it.
That would be the last time Lillard ever questioned himself.
Confidence is a virus that makes you half crazy, half untruthful, but it’s altogether necessary. Like when Barton walks to the scorer’s table to check in and wholly believes that he’s about to make an impact like no other.
“I feel like coming off the bench, and I’m a rookie — not a lot expected of me, (but) I expect a lot of myself,” Barton said. “I feel like I’m one of the best players on the court, no matter who’s out there.”
His confidence tells him so. When he was two years younger than the other players on his Baltimore rec-league team, Barton just tried to fit in. Keep his mouth shut and pass the ball. But Barton realized how good he actually was, and so he started playing like it. Infected with confidence since he was 6 years old, Barton can spot a guy who’s faking it.
As soon as the cheers turn to boos and the coach’s rotation favors another player, “You’ll see them fly right out of the window,” Barton said.
“They’re ones that need the coach (saying): ‘You’re good! You’re good, man! You’re a great player! We need you to produce!’ And that’s where their confidence comes from. I see a lot of it all the time,” Barton said. “Your confidence shouldn’t have to deal with anybody telling you how good you are. That’s true confidence. I don’t need anyone to pump my head up and tell me I’m good.”
That’s why Barton can go from The Man in Memphis, to the 13th man on the Blazers’ roster and still keep the faith in his abilities.
And it’s why Lillard can rise from the Big Sky and perform as the hottest rookie in the Association.
They enjoy the one special quality that some imitate while others misinterpret as cockiness. And they have so much that it’s coming out of their pores like little confident second heads.
Blazers fans saw Lillard’s make an appearance on Sunday. It needed only 4.2 seconds to make a splash. Right through the net for the win.
“Like coach said: ‘Believe in yourself. Believe it’s going in,’ ” Lillard said. “And I walked on the court right after I said ‘I do.’ And I believed I was going to make it.”