The Portland Trail Blazers took a two-year playoffs victory drought into Game 1 of their 2019 NBA Playoffs series with the Oklahoma City Thunder today. Take heart, ye faithful. It’s the Pacific Northwest; rain is never far away. A masterful outing by Enes Kanter, sharp shooting from Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum’s mid-range magic, and a three-point shooting exhibition from the Thunder that smelled like bleu cheese strained through a garbage disposal all combined to give Portland a 104-99 victory. The series isn’t over by a long shot, but this was the start the Blazers wanted.
A First Quarter for the Ages
The first quarter was everything the Blazers could have dreamed of. They stared down the playoffs misery shark and punched it (and the Thunder) straight in the nose.
Physical play predominated. Oklahoma City tried to go at Enes Kanter, feeding the ball to Steven Adams almost every possession. Adams scored, but Kanter didn’t try to do too much. He stood in strong, making Adams take another beat before shooting. This allowed guards and forwards to help. When Adams passed, the Blazers targeted Paul George, who looked nothing like his regular-season self.
Portland’s focus gave them four blocks in the quarter, three by Moe Harkless alone. They slowed down Adams, prevented George from shooting, and kept a single man in front of Russell Westbrook. After that, they were willing to give the Thunder anything else they wanted...which turned out to be nothing worth having. Oklahoma City didn’t hit open jumpers, leaving their scoring impoverished, making every Portland rebound (and there were plenty) feel like a dagger.
The Thunder tried a similar strategy on the other end, sending help every time a Portland guard touched the ball. Damian Lillard split double teams for penetration, scoring or passing out. CJ McCollum hit his first three and the floodgates opened from there. The Blazers started the game 5-5 from distance, hitting seven triples in the first period alone. Add in 8 rebounds from Kanter, plenty of hustle, and home crowd momentum, and the Blazers exited the quarter with a healthy 39-25 lead.
Preserving the Lead
The goal for Portland in the second period was not to lose the lead when the second unit came in. They accomplished this by cheating slightly: they kept McCollum on the floor. CJ responded with nifty flip-drives on his way to 16 points in the first half. Oklahoma City continued to feed the middle against Kanter and cohorts, but their inability to hit three-point shots left Portland free to plug up the middle. Portland’s rebounding remained fantastic throughout.
The lone bad stretch of the first half came with the starters back in, late in the second period. The Blazers appeared to slow on defense. Rotations melted away as their point-of-attack defenders lost containment. Turnovers and ill-considered heat-check threes started to infest the offense. Only OKC’s complete inability to hit a distance shot (George missed three straight on consecutive possessions with nobody within 5 feet of him) kept the Thunder at bay. Westbrook drawing two offensive fouls in the last minute was the only bright spot late. Portland led by 6, 54-48, at the half.
The second half opened with star guards going one-on-everybody, playing isolation ball. Unsurprisingly, the Thunder got the better of that game, as Westbrook set to work on a double-digits scoring quarter. The Blazers were saved by their offensive rebounding prowess. Second chances didn’t just produce points, they slowed down the momentum the Thunder were trying to build. Oklahoma City’s rotten shooting continued to eat into their comeback efforts. Forget halfcourt Toyota shots, George couldn’t have won a used Yugo.
Portland’s lead vacillated between 6-8 for most of the third quarter. Lillard and McCollum connected on a couple drives late, but OKC returned the favor with a dunk and a layup. Westbrook picked up his fourth foul on a backcourt steal attempt late in the period. The Blazers held onto a 76-69 margin entering the fourth.
Taking It Home
The Blazers banked on McCollum again to start the fourth and he delivered with pull-ups off the dribble, a specialty he hasn’t been able to feature as much this season. It was like the band taking the stage and playing the hits that made them famous. But Oklahoma City wasn’t done by a long shot. For every drive the Blazers tried, OKC attempted two. Their outside shooting having long since deserted them, they were determined to get inside and draw fouls. They proved moderately successful, but Lillard stepped to the fore mid-quarter with a deep three followed by a slicing drive and score. A George three with 2:38 left brought the Thunder to within 1, sending a serious scare into the Blazers faithful, but Lillard answered back with a patented logo three. Whenever Portland missed a shot after, it seemed like Kanter was there to snag the offensive board and give them another possession. Bleeding seconds off of the clock proved as critical as scoring; Portland continued to nurse their lead. By the final minute of the game, OKC found themselves still down a half-dozen, having to foul for possession. Lillard sank free throw after free throw to keep them at bay, allowing his team to walk away with the 104-99 win.
A Thunderous Error
The Thunder made an enormous miscalculation with Enes Kanter. Going after him early with Steve Adams was legit. Adams scored. They had the potential to draw fouls against Kanter. They could fatigue him early and reap the benefits throughout the game. Except they never bothered with the reaping. They appeared to assume that just because Kanter is a poor defender, every approach was equally valid.
Kanter may not be great, but he is 6’11” and 250lbs. In the paint, size and a bit of determination suffice for defense. Kanter had both today. Almost every time the Thunder made him move sideways, he got exposed; they just didn’t do it enough. Adams could have scored 100 off of decent screen and rolls...but nope. Instead Kanter stayed planted, free to shuffle and slow the opponent, always near the rim for any rebound he wanted.
Granted, OKC’s utter lack of three-point shooting contributed to their inability to spread the floor, but if their coaching staff doesn’t look at the film and say, “We took the wrong approach here,” they probably ought to be examined.
McCollum Strikes Gold
Remember how once upon a time everybody fixated on Kim Kardashian, then they discovered her sisters had more going for them than assumed? If Lillard is Kim and Kanter played Khloe today, then CJ McCollum went Kylie.
Tightening up an already-injury-shortened rotation requires ingenuity and compromise. The coaching staff finessed both by playing McCollum with the reserves, hearkening back to seasons of yore. 9-24 shooting for 24 points doesn’t look that impressive on the surface, but CJ would not let Portland’s second unit lose the lead the starters had gained. He busted out all the tricks, from dipsy-doodle layups to mid-range pull-ups. Hitting a trio of triples—as many threes as Oklahoma City hit for the first 47 minutes of the contest—put the icing on the cake. The Blazers did end up giving the lead back, but it wasn’t on McCollum’s watch.
It’s impossible to overstate how much Portland’s rebounding, especially offensive, meant in this game. Part of that was an artifact of building a strong first-quarter lead. Every board took away another possession from the Thunder, or at least made those possessions take longer. Oklahoma City didn’t get to engage in footraces either. They had to hang back and secure the rebound off of Portland misses, lest the Blazers get to the ball first. Anytime OKC got to the rim, they were met by at least one body, often resulting in fouls, also extracting a punishment toll for each attempt. Controlling the ball and tempo helped Portland control this game.
All of this mattered because Oklahoma City shot 5-33 (15%) on three-point attempts. Had the Thunder hit even a couple more, the story of the game might have been different.
No need to credit Portland’s defense for OKC’s ineptitude; the Thunder missed wide-open shots all day. The Blazers were free to pack the lane, leading to lower shooting percentages for Westbrook and George, better rebounds, and eventually, the victory. Portland rubbed salt in the wounds by shooting 11-25 (44%) from distance themselves.
To put the importance of the long ball in perspective, Oklahoma City missed 56 shots overall today. Half of those misses came beyond the arc.
I feel comfortable saying that the Thunder will not win this series if they can’t top 20% from the arc.
The Blazers earned 9 blocked shots, many of them in the superlative first quarter. Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu earned three each, Harkless’ all coming in the first five minutes, every one against Paul George. That targeted flurry of defense appeared to put second thoughts in George’s mind all night, or at least kept him from getting in rhythm easily. If Harkless also made hard contact on a couple fouls, that’s what playoffs basketball is all about. He and his team certainly played it today.
Paul George (shoulder) and Russell Westbrook (twisted ankle, which happened in this game) did not look like themselves. The physical state of the Thunder is something to keep an eye on (though not something to cry about) as the series progresses.
Enes Kanter gets the game ball with 20 points, 18 rebounds (7 offensive), and 8-15 shooting. The rebounds and field goal percentage were team highs, 20 points placed him behind Lillard and McCollum in team scoring. Adding two blocked shots was a nice bonus.
Damian Lillard had a couple ill-advised shots...until they weren’t. Logo Lillard did his thing when the Blazers needed it most, proving the superstar ability just as George and Westbrook were falling apart. 30 points, 9-21 shooting, 5-11 on threes, and 7-8 on foul shots (most during the final minutes) were just what the doctor ordered.
Seth Curry hit 2-3 on three-pointers while Rodney Hood canned one of his own to make sure the Thunder couldn’t catch up during the early second and fourth quarters.
Like the original Saturday Night Live players, Zach Collins may not be ready for prime time. One of the big questions the Blazers will need to answer is how to cope if they have to delve even one player deeper into their forward/center rotation.
Welcome to Loud City may be a wee bit quieter after all those three-point clanks.
Game 2 goes down Tuesday night at 7:30, Pacific. The Blazers aren’t going to be able to win the same way. Can Kanter repeat his incredible performance? Will Oklahoma City wake up and make him move? Can Portland counter by getting closer to three-point shooters? Stay tuned.