A duel between Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard favored the Oklahoma City Thunder at home, who won, 120-108, to keep their 2019 NBA Playoffs hopes alive.
The nature of basketball says teams generally go as far as your best player take them but rarely do such top-heavy groups test that truism as aggressively as Portland and Oklahoma City in this first-round series.
The game began with a Thunder deflection that led to Portland turning the ball over on a back-court violation. Lillard was not fazed. He brought it for the third straight game but didn’t get enough from his teammates when he was on the bench to take a 3-0 lead.
Playoff games occasionally line up smoothly in a way that puts every role player in a perfect position to succeed, and Friday’s important Game 3 in Oklahoma City, with a sea of orange in the seats and a more efficient Thunder team on the hardwood, had that feeling.
Forward Jerami Grant, who was 0-of-8 from distance in these teams’ first two playoff matchups, nailed his first four 3s to provide double-digit points in support of Russell Westbrook. Aside from his shooting, Grant’s help defense around the basket seemed to have the top-of-the-roller-coaster thrill of a big 3. The expectations for the Thunder role players could not have been lower heading into Game 3, and they came up big.
Grant was joined by Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder in the offensive renaissance in OKC. The pair shot a combined 5-of-6 from deep and scored 25 points together.
Blowing past expectations was easy for Oklahoma City after abysmal performances in Portland. It was never more impressive than Markieff Morris’ 15 minutes, in which the journeyman forward put up 7 points and 6 rebounds and acted as a decent fulcrum for the Thunder offense during minutes without Westbrook or Paul George.
Ferguson, however, picked up his third foul just seven minutes into the game while Schroder was waiting to check in for him. That gave Portland’s offense an early leg up as their CJ McCollum-stopper was only able to play 18 minutes after seeing the bench early.
Oklahoma City was able to keep Lillard and the Trail Blazers at bay despite the shortened rotation and a heavier dose of Schroder than usual — until the third quarter.
Lillard scored 25 in that frame, mostly by straight up sprinting past the Thunder defense. He understands the habits of Westbrook and Oklahoma City’s back line, knows they overplay his screen-and-roll game. There’s nothing to be done on the part of the Thunder.
The battle that was supposed to highlight this series — Westbrook’s drive-and-dish game against backup Trail Blazers center Enes Kanter — mattered not when Lillard was in control.
The moment he sat, though, things changed. Portland coach Terry Stotts staggered the minutes of Lillard and McCollum most of the night, and the numbers show Lillard’s impact. Outside a fourth-quarter run to seal the game, Portland was mostly positive when their star point guard was on the court. Lillard was a minus-8 and McCollum a minus-20.
This game was about Oklahoma City doing enough when Lillard was on the bench to win. Superstars win NBA games most nights, but especially in the spring.
Westbrook seemed to realize late in the third quarter that Kanter and Portland’s other bigs stood no chance against his speed and athleticism. He began the night patient and watchful but slayed the Trail Blazers with his scoring in the second half. The 2017 NBA MVP finished the game with 30 points on 22 shot attempts and 11 assists.
George was nowhere to be seen, Schroder was relatively quiet, and Portland’s defense locked down most of the first half. Yet the Thunder kept their playoff hopes alive thanks to a massive night from their best player when they needed it.