When someone scores 71 points in an N.B.A. game, that’s remarkable, of course. Scoring 71 points is hard. Doing it against professional defenders is harder still.
But there have been so many high-scoring games in the league recently that Damian Lillard’s 71-point performance in the Portland Trail Blazers’ 131-114 victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday night wasn’t even the first of its kind this season.
Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell also scored 71 points in a game on Jan. 2, the same day Klay Thompson poured in 54 for Golden State. Luka Doncic has had games of 60, 51 and 50 this season. In all, there have been 21 games of 50 or more points this season.
“I think any hooper enjoys those moments when you’re hot, you’re in attack mode, you’re feeling good,” Lillard told reporters after Sunday’s game. “But it’s the stuff afterward that I struggle with, like: When I walked off the court, was I supposed to be overly excited, or what?”
He should be. Here’s why.
Lillard is developing a habit of big games. His 71 points matched the season’s single-game high, set by Mitchell in January. But unlike Mitchell, Lillard already had put up a 60-point game in January, giving him two of the four 60-point games in the league this season. (He also has a 50-point game.)
That’s a lot of points. Only eight players have scored 70 points in an N.B.A. game. Seven of them are Kobe Bryant (81); David Thompson (73); Lillard, Mitchell, Elgin Baylor and David Robinson (71); and Devin Booker (70). The only player to do it more than once was Wilt Chamberlain, who accomplished the 70-plus feat six times, topped by his legendary 100-point game in 1962.
Lillard scored his 71 points in only 39 minutes and didn’t need overtime. Mitchell’s 71 came in 50 minutes in an overtime game. Doncic’s 60-point game came in overtime, too. In Lillard’s second big game this year, he also filled it up quickly, scoring 60 in 40 regulation minutes.
Lillard made 13 3-pointers on Sunday. That’s tied for the second most in a game behind Thompson’s 14 for the Warriors in a 52-point game in 2018. Lillard attempted 22 3-point shots on Sunday, tied for fourth most single-game attempts behind Thompson’s 24 and two 23-shot games by James Harden. Lillard’s signature shot of the night came with 50 seconds left in the first half, when he casually crossed halfway then stunningly fired up a 36-foot bomb that went in.
Lillard was 14 for 14 on his free throws. Of the players who tallied the 20 other 50-point games this season, only Jayson Tatum — in a 51-point game for the Celtics — had as many free throws without missing one.
The game was part of an ongoing great season. In a career with seven All-Star selections, Lillard, 32, might be having his best season yet. His scoring average of 32.3 points is a career high and is third in the N.B.A. behind Joel Embiid and Doncic. He also has career highs in field goal percentage (.472) and free throw percentage (.919) and in most of the all-inclusive stats like player efficiency rating.
If there’s a downside, it has been Lillard’s team’s performance. The Blazers had a disastrous 2021-22, ending an eight-season playoff appearance streak, and are only 29-31 after Sunday night’s victory. While the team is better and scrapping for a play-in spot, it is still a long way from contention despite Lillard’s performances.
“I feel like I’ve got to do my best to be aggressive and just to try to do what I can to get some wins,” Lillard said after the game, “and that’s all the case was tonight. I wanted to be in attack mode. I got it going, and I just stayed aggressive.”
“Having 41 at the half was insane,” Trail Blazers Coach Chauncey Billups said of the performance.
By then, most of Lillard’s teammates realized their job was to stay out of his way. Only two other Blazers scored in double figures, and only one — Jerami Grant — hit double figures in shots. Billups, a former N.B.A. scorer in his own right, said he understood his other players’ reluctance.
“You feel guilty taking a shot,” he said, “when you know guy is having a night.”