The Brooklyn Nets couldn’t buy a basket in the final two minutes of their heartbreaking Game 3 loss against the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday. Ironically for Brooklyn, the player best suited to close out a playoff game was in the building, he just wasn’t a member of either team playing.
Damian Lillard sat courtside at Barclays Center for the Nets’ playoff matchup, a move that had the NBA Twitter trade machines in full swing postgame.
Dame in the building for Sixers-Nets ⌚️#NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/Pgh8xVsNoY
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) April 20, 2023
Lillard had already drawn chatter in NBA trade circles after saying both he and the Portland Trail Blazers “will have a decision to make” if the team doesn’t commit to building a win-now contender. In regards to Lillard’s appearance at Barclays Center Thursday, Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn joked with reporters following practice Friday to let him know if they had any intel:
“I didn’t even know,” Vaughn said of Lillard sitting courtside. “What was that about? If ya’ll got something let me know now!”
Jacque Vaughn when asked if he was surprised Damian Lillard was sitting courtside:
"I didn't even know… What was that about? If ya'll got something let me know now!"
— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) April 21, 2023
Lillard’s appearance has caught the eye of Nets fans given his known affinity for Mikal Bridges. The Portland star recently named Bridges and Devin Booker when asked which NBA players he is a fan of on ESPN. The seven-time All-Star also named the Nets forward when asked which players he would choose to add to the Trail Blazers before the start of this season:
“If I had to say a player right now that I would want to add to our team, I would say somebody like Mikal Bridges or OG Anunoby or Jarred Vanderbilt,” he answered on The Dave Pasch Podcast. “Somebody like that. One of those three. I love those three guys.”
Lillard also called Bridges “his favorite small forward in the league” when speaking with Yahoo Sports in 2021 about his vision for pursuing a title with Portland:
“If you look at Phoenix, they don’t have a bunch of stars. They got people who are really good at what they do and understand their roles,” he said. “Chris Paul and Devin Booker are All-Stars, but Deandre Ayton is a quality center, Jae Crowder is an experienced, quality stretch-four man that’s tough, Cam Johnson is nice and Mikal Bridges is my favorite small forward in the league. You just look at how that team is put together and they’re in the Finals coming out of the West. That’s what my vision is.”
It’s a quote that could fuel the Dame to Brooklyn speculation sparked by his appearance at Barclays Center. The “vision” Lillard spoke of sounds eerily similar to the team the Nets have in place. Bridges and Johnson have both made significant strides since 2021, Nic Claxton has broken out as one of the league’s best defensive centers, and Brooklyn has veteran wings who profile similarly to Crowder in Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale.
Lillard had the best statistical season of his career this year, averaging 32.2 points and 7.3 assists per game on 46/37/91 shooting splits. After falling behind in the standings, Portland opted to shut the guard down in the final weeks of the season, a move that allowed them to secure the fifth-best odds in this year’s lottery.
It remains to be seen whether the 32-year-old is indeed on the market, or whether the Nets would even have interest in him after resetting their timeline with trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Brooklyn is stocked with 10 first-round draft picks in the next seven years to use in a potential package if Portland were to field calls for Lillard.