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Lillard vows that the best is yet to come

PORTLAND — Damian Lillard’s obvious skills meant his star was already on the rise last season. Then The Shot happened.

Lillard’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer as time ran out in Game 6 of a first-round playoff series against the Rockets gave the Trail Blazers a 99-98 victory and pushed them into the Western Conference semifinals for the first time in 14 years.

Afterward, he said it was the best shot of his young career. “So far,” he added with a smile.

Lillard has had all summer to reflect on that shot and what it meant. He was busy, working out with the U.S. national team and the other duties that come with a raised profile.

Although he doesn’t put himself in the realm with LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Chris Paul, he’s working on it.

“I think I put myself out there a little bit,” Lillard said. “But I have to give a lot of credit for that to my team and what we were able to accomplish. What happened with me as a basketball player, a lot of opportunities opened up because of that.”

Lillard averaged 20.7 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds last season, his second in the league. He made the All-Star team and grabbed attention by becoming the first player to participate in all five events connected to All-Star weekend: the Future Stars game, the skills challenge, the 3-point shootout, the dunk contest and finally the All-Star game itself.

Lillard wore his leadership role on the Blazers with confidence and had great on-court chemistry with fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. The duo returns to a team that won 54 games and retained most of its roster, including fellow starters Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez.

The Blazers went out in the offseason and got center Chris Kaman to back up Lopez and veteran guard Steve Blake to help spell Lillard.

Blake said he and Lillard played in a couple of pickup games this summer. Even in the casual setting, Blake said: “You could see how talented he is. He is as good as advertised.”

General manager Neil Olshey said Lillard is a sharp player with a good business sense, always working on his game in the gym.

“Nothing gets in the way of basketball for Damian,” Olshey said at the team’s media day at the start of training camp.

The Blazers open the preseason on the road tonight against the Utah Jazz, a game that will no doubt draw fans that Lillard gained playing at Weber State.

The Blazers open the regular season at home on Oct. 29 against Oklahoma City.

While Lillard trained with the national team this summer, he was not among the 12 players selected to represent the United States on the final roster for the FIBA World Cup in Spain. The United States went on to win the event.

“The best part about that was just being able to compete against the top players every day,” he said. “You don’t get that opportunity very much and I was thankful for that. But I also feel like they were telling me I wasn’t good enough.

“I’ve always been one to throw wood on the fire, anytime I got the opportunity. Once I turned away from making that team, I basically took it as I wasn’t good enough. That was another reason for me to go back and keep trying to improve as a player.”

The Rockets certainly don’t believe Lillard is lacking. When they opened training camp, that season-ending shot was still a topic of discussion.

“For a lot of us who were here, that 0.9 seconds stuck in our minds a lot but we have to move past it,” Dwight Howard said.

Lillard watched the whole series against the Rockets twice this summer. He acknowledges that while the shot may have changed the course for the Blazers, it also changed something within him.

“I think it just changed me with not questioning myself. There’s always times where you question yourself a little bit, not that you don’t believe in yourself, but you’re like, ‘What if this happens? Or what if that happens?’” he said. “But in that moment nothing crossed my mind. I never doubted what would happen for a second.”

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard gained recognition with a winning shot againts Houston in the playoffs, then worked out with the U.S. national team. AP PHOTO