The regular season ended with both the Thunder and the Blazers hobbling into the playoffs and neither guaranteed much postseason success. Portland lost its best player, cruelly, to a gruesome leg fracture in the 55th minute of a late-March game while Oklahoma City clawed for every win down the stretch, taxing its players in the process. Yet both teams loom as potential Conference Finalists if everything breaks right between now and May.
Here are four questions whose answers could swing one of the most intriguing series of the first round:
4. How healthy is Paul George?
The Thunder’s primary source of confidence entering the playoffs should be George, who, until a potential matchup with the Warriors, should be the best player in any series Oklahoma City plays. While Damian Lillard has been impressive in his own right this year, he just can’t replicate George’s imprint on every facet of the game. George is skilled enough to carry an offense, while big and motivated enough to envelop an opponent’s best scorer on the other end. His versatility allows him to take over when necessary, but also allow Russell Westbrook to roam while providing much-needed floor spacing for an offense that otherwise has none. Even more so than players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Lillard, George impacts every possession of a given game. OKC sinks on both ends of the floor when he sits — a product of having so few players capable of providing an adequate facsimile of what he brings.
The nine-year veteran is playing the best basketball of his career and has a chance to solidify himself as a top-10 player with a strong showing against Portland, provided he is physically able to perform. George has been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury that, in addition to costing him four games over the last six weeks, caused the Thunder to slip to the sixth seed after rising as high as second earlier in the year. Oklahoma City is also batting the cumulative physical toll of its season — the price of having to push for every game down the stretch. George has felt the weight of that more than anyone, averaging 38.5 minutes per game since the All-Star break while seeing both the volume and efficiency of his production dip, but the Thunder had little choice but to lean on their best player to sustain them through a playoff race. He’s their only player capable of creating efficient offense from anywhere on the floor and the primary defensive option against superstar foes.
While Portland doesn’t have the sort of wing that will demand George’s maximum defensive effort, they have forwards in Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu with the size and defensive prowess to at least bother George. If the All-Star is healthy, however, his defenders may be able to do nothing but hope.