Damian Lillard gives Golden State Warriors fits, while Kyle Lowry finally shows up for Toronto Raptors

Portland's superstar shines bright when needed most, and Toronto's superstar finally shows up in a couple of Game 3s on Saturday.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard shoots against the defense of Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala during the second half of Game 3 of the NBA Western Conference semifinals. (EPA/STEVE DIPAOLA CORBIS)
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Throughout the NBA play-offs, The National's resident NBA dudes Jonathan Raymond and Kevin Jeffers will be breaking down the key talking points of the night before, plus looking around the scope of the league. Here are our NBA Play-off takeaways.

Saturday’s scores

• Toronto 95, Miami 91 | Raptors lead series 2-1 | Game 4 on Tuesday, 4am

• Portland 120, Golden State 108 | Warriors lead series 2-1 | Game 4 on Tuesday, 6.30am

A Dame to die for

It’s easy to sit back and call the Portland Trail Blazers the biggest surprise of the 2015-16 NBA season. They lost two of their best players, LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews, in free agency, traded Nic Batum to the Hornets, and essentially hit the reset button. Not much was expected of them this year.

But instead of tanking, they stayed competitive in the ultra-competitve West to return to the play-offs, and even knocked out the favoured Los Angeles Clippers to advance.

Yeah, it’s easy to say all that was a surprise, but it ignores one basic fact – you can’t just hit reset on your franchise when you already have a bona-fide superstar, and the Blazers have one in 4th-year guard Damian Lillard.

If you said Draymond Green would score 37 to go with 9 rebounds and 8 assists, and Klay Thompson would score 35, and the Warriors would still lose, I’d say that would be a surprise. But Lillard was just too much, dropping 40 points on the top-seeded Warriors in the win. Now down 2-1 instead of 3-0, the Blazers might have a puncher’s chance in the series.

Lillard scored 25 of his 40 in the first half, including a couple of un-guardable three-pointers late to keep the Blazers from giving up another fourth-quarter lead (they scored a paltry 6 points in the final 5:21). The best players in the league put up big numbers, sure, but the truly special ones keep their teams afloat in crunch time of the biggest games. Lillard did just that in Game 3.

Stephen Curry sat out again for Golden State, but could be healthy enough to come back for Games 4 or 5. You have to wonder if the Portland win expedites Curry’s recovery timetable. Golden State have proven twice they can handle Portland without him, but another Blazers win could change that.

On Saturday, though, I doubt even a full-strength Warriors team could’ve slowed down Lillard and the Blazers. They absolutely belong here, playing among the NBA’s best teams.

About time

Welcome to the play-offs, Kyle Lowry.

That the Toronto Raptors are this deep into the Eastern Conference play-offs while their best player has been virtually invisible (only 31 per cent shooting before Saturday) should be encouraging. Surely at some point the 2-time All-Star would wake up and start doing what he’s supposed to do, and the Raptors would look like the 56-win team from the regular season.

He finally broke out in Saturday’s Game 3 win over Miami, scoring 33 (29 in the second half) while putting the team on his back in the fourth.

Both teams lost their starting centres to injury – Miami’s Hassan Whiteside injured his knee early in the second quarter, and Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas injured his ankle in the third. It was apparent this game would have to be decided by a couple of superstar guards.

Enter vintage Dwyane Wade, who couldn’t miss in an 18-point third quarter as Miami erased a 9-point halftime deficit. Wade finished with 38, and showed he’s still capable of taking over a game by himself.

But Lowry was the deciding factor, scoring 5 straight late in the fourth at one point, and hitting a huge midrange shot to put Toronto up by 3 with 30 seconds left. Miami’s Joe Johnson missed a would-be tying 3 at the other end, and the Raptors survived to take the 2-1 lead.

Whiteside’s injury looms large for Miami. His rim protection facilitates much of what gave the Heat a top-10 defence this year, allowing tons of space to guard the perimeter. If Valanciunas also stays banged-up and both teams have to play small, it should favour the two-headed attack of Toronto guards Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

With or without Whiteside, If this was a harbinger of things to come for Lowry in these play-offs and he’s finally figured out his shot, the Heat are in trouble. And the Raptors might finally emerge as the long-awaited threat to LeBron James’s vice grip on the Eastern crown.

Tonight’s games

• Cleveland at Atlanta, 11.30pm | Cavaliers lead series 3-0

• San Antonio at Oklahoma City, 4am | Spurs lead series 2-1

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