The star backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum led the Portland Trail Blazers to a much-needed Game 3 victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight, propelling the Blazers to a 3-1 series lead. Portland’s starting guards combined for an effective 51 points off of nine combined three-pointers, while playing tough defense on an assortment of Thunder players. A strong third quarter gave the team a double-digit lead, which they maintained for the remainder of the game.
Normally the unsung hero, Al-Farouq Aminu made an impact tonight. His play at the start and end of the game earned him the BioFreeze performer award as the player of the game.
Aminu’s most important contribution was knocking down early three-pointers to stretch the Thunder defense. Instead of every defender collapsing on Lillard or McCollum, they hesitated on pinching into the lane and vacated room for the guards to attack. When OKC’s defense adjusted for Lillard and McCollum’s assault, the ball went back to Aminu.
While he failed to connect on crucial attempts in the final minutes of the game, Aminu contributed in his usual manner...on defense. He stayed tight on Paul George and communicated well with Moe Harkless to switch on screens, limiting George’s uncontested three-point attempts. Aminu also blocked Nerlens Noel in the fourth quarter and secured the loose ball to keep Portland’s lead secure.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum Stay Hot
Lillard came out sluggish and missed all four of his shots in the first quarter. He didn’t score until the final two minutes of the half, but five late points capped off an 11-0 Portland run and gave the Blazers a 50-46 lead at halftime. As in Game 3, Lillard broke out in the third quarter. He utilized screens from Enes Kanter craftily, separating himself from George and converting three triples in four possessions, vaulting the Blazers to a significant lead.
McCollum diced up Thunder defenders all night with the silky dribble moves we’re accustomed to, but he shot with remarkable confidence too. He took the offensive torch from Lillard in the fourth quarter. Just as the Thunder were trying to make a comeback, he blocked George in transition, then ran into a pull-up three on the other end. This pushed Portland’s lead to 97-81 with 4:26 remaining, an edge that would prove insurmountable. McCollum finished with 27 points, one steal and two blocks on 10-20 shooting and five triples.
For the third time in four games, the Blazers held the Thunder under 100 points. While every player worked hard on defense - the team collected 10 steals and eight blocks - Kanter stepped up to fill the interior void. Early on, he battled with Steven Adams in the post to prevent the opposing big man from starting his post up near the key. He avoided foul trouble despite OKC attacking the rim relentlessly by staying vertical and still contesting shots. Kanter emphatically blocked Westbrook off the backboard in the second quarter to add to the 11-0 run, plus he stayed steady on George and Westbrook on the perimeter down the stretch.
The big man only finished with eight points, but he made smart decisions with the ball and didn’t attempt many bad shots. In the second half, Jerami Grant defended him and the Blazers looked to position him in the post. When the double-team came from Adams on the weak side, Kanter found the open teammate with a skip pass, creating an open three-point look.
Little Promise from the Bench
Terry Stotts elected to rest Lillard and McCollum to start the second quarter, but Portland’s bench once again proved incapable of manufacturing its own offense. Stotts promptly subbed McCollum back in.
Rodney Hood remained passive and only attempted four shots in 18 minutes. Seth Curry failed to make a shot for the second straight game. (He didn’t shoot any in Game 3). Evan Turner couldn’t capitalize on smaller defenders in the post and failed to handle the ball well enough to let Lillard and McCollum play off the ball.
The one bright spot off the bench was Zach Collins. He saw extended minutes in the fourth quarter. With the opportunity, he hustled for offensive rebounds and avoided unnecessary fouls to prevent unforced and costly turnovers. Offensively, he showed the ability to score on the perimeter when needed as well, as in the post with nifty footwork. He bailed out McCollum on most pick and rolls when OKC trapped the guards. He calmly collected the pass at the top of the key and drove for a foul or found the open man.
Securing a win in Oklahoma City puts the Blazers in fantastic position going forward. The series returns to the Moda Center for a potential finale in front of a hyped Moda Center crowd at 7:30 p.m. PT on Tuesday night.