Damian Lillard passes Clyde Drexler in Blazers scoring: ‘I’ve always said I wanted to be the best’

The label as the greatest Trail Blazers player of all time is up for debate, but now one thing isn’t: Damian Lillard is the most prolific scorer to ever play in Portland.

From a fresh-faced kid who arrived in Portland 11 years ago, to now a bearded father of three, Lillard has grown into his standing among franchise greats Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler and now has one of the most cherished milestones to support his case as the best: he is the franchise leader in points after passing Drexler’s mark of 18,040 points in the third quarter of Monday’s game at Oklahoma City. It was a record that stood for 33 years, and one that Lillard has openly coveted for the past seven years, shortly after he supplanted LaMarcus Aldridge as the franchise centerpiece in 2015.

Lillard, who passed Drexler’s mark while playing in 137 fewer games, entered Monday’s contest needing 21 points to set the record. He tied the record with one of his signature shots — a deep 3-pointer (from 38 feet) with 8:49 left in the third quarter. He missed his next three shots, then passed Drexler at the free throw line with 1:33 left. He finished with 28 points and six assists in 39 minutes.

In the locker room after a 123-121 loss, general manager Joe Cronin bounced the game ball to Lillard and coach Chauncey Billups presented Lillard a black-and-gold boxing belt that noted the scoring achievement, a memento that acknowledged one of Lillard’s off- court passions.

“It means something to me in my heart,” Lillard told reporters earlier in the day. “To have something in the history books and record books, it will mean something,”

Monday was a bittersweet accomplishment because Lillard has always prioritized winning ahead of his accomplishments. He tied the game with 3.1 seconds left on a reverse layin, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit a baseline jumper at the buzzer to win it.

Still, this was a night Lillard had long envisioned. He has long thought about his legacy, and what it means to stay in Portland, to remain a Trail Blazer and to be considered the best to ever wear the uniform.

“I’ve always said I wanted to be the best,” Lillard told reporters last week. “To be the guy who when they say ‘Who is the best to come through here?’ I want people to look and say ‘Dame.’ Obviously, scoring isn’t everything, but when you start to get up in these type of numbers, that’s a major thing. The fact that it’s Clyde’s record, anybody who knows the history of the NBA respects and honors that. Being apart of one organization for this long, and to be able to sustain this level of success, and to catch a record like that, it means a lot to be in that position … it will be a major step in furthering the direction of where I want to be.”

To many of those who have played with him, the case is already closed.

“No disrespect to Clyde — he’s one of the all-time greats — but even if Dame didn’t pass him, I feel like Dame is still the greatest Blazer ever,” center Jusuf Nurkic said. “When you put everything together — the way he plays the game, what he does off the court, everything — he’s a one of a kind player. Hopefully he retires here.”

His rise to the top of the franchise scoring list has been marked by dramatic shots and scoring flurries. He holds the franchise mark for points in a game, scoring 61 at Dallas and against Golden State in 2020, and has 12 games of scoring 50 or more. But to those who are around Lillard, it’s what he does behind the scenes that defines his greatness about him. Even before he was drafted sixth overall in 2012 Lillard had a reputation as a relentless worker.

Denver coach Michael Malone said before the 2012 draft he remembered hearing about these remarkable training sessions by a kid from Oakland. At the time, Malone was an assistant with Golden State, and after hearing the stories grow to almost mythical proportions, he decided he had to see it for himself. The stories were true.

“I heard about these legendary workouts in Oakland, and at the time I live right there, so I went and watched one day,” Malone said. “I watched for myself how hard he was working, and the things he was doing. So when you understand where he is from, and the work ethic he has, it’s no surprise that he gets even better as he matures and develops and establishes his legacy here in Portland.”

To some, Walton is the greatest Blazer because he led the Blazers to their only title in 1977. He also is the only Blazer to win league MVP. Drexler is hailed for his eight all-star appearances and two trips to the NBA Finals, and for being arguably the second best player in the league behind Michael Jordan for several seasons. Lillard has the franchise scoring records, and some of the most memorable shots in franchise history, including two buzzer beaters that ended playoff series — the 3-pointer off an inbounds pass with 0.9 seconds left in 2014 against Houston and the 37-footer to cap a 50-point effort that sent Oklahoma City home in 2019.

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“In the history of the game there are lots of great shooters and scorers,” Malone said. “But for me, growing up in this business, what separates the guys who can do it in the regular season and guys who can do it in the playoffs, the big moments. He’s not afraid of the moment. And I think around these parts you call it Dame Time. We’ve seen him hit multiple big, big shots … he’s never afraid.”

His legacy is still growing – he’s under contract through the 2027 season — and to Lillard it extends beyond the iconic shots and the records. He has poured into the community, and bought into mentoring the younger players on the team, often noting that his responsibility and his touch needs to extend beyond basketball.

“To have a guy like that, who’s not only making all the big shots, but has always been about the right things, no drama … it’s just amazing,” Nurkic said.

(Photo of Damian Lillard: Carmen Mandato/ Getty Images)

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