Damian Lillard hit a 37-foot shot over Paul George as the final buzzer sounded in Game 5 of the first-round playoffs series between the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder. The miraculous buzzer-beater capped off a tumultuous evening, giving Portland a 118-115 victory and a ticket to the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Lillard’s 50 points, along with a little fourth-quarter help from teammates, overcame a 36-point, 70% shooting performance by George. Russell Westbrook added 29 in a losing effort.
Facing elimination, Paul George came to play in the first period, lofting match-up shots over shorter defenders and hitting every one. George would score 15 in the quarter. Jumpers by Westbrook and Jerami Grant broke the defense that George bent as the lane opened up for anything OKC wanted. They scored 20 points in the first six minutes, threatening a 40-point period.
The Blazers were saved by Damian Lillard, who started his night with an impossible sideways-leaning fade-away from 12 feet and continued with a barrage of twisting triples and layups. Lillard bested George with 19 points in the frame. CJ McCollum was just heating up when he drew his third foul, a by-product of being matched up against George on both ends. The Blazers got a few nifty shots from bench players and grabbed offensive rebounds off of the less-nifty ones, but couldn’t overcome their lack of defense. After a shaky start, the Blazers found themselves down 37-29 after one, courtesy of a 16-23 shooting clip by OKC.
Lillard continued the torrential downpour of points throughout the second period, tearing up the court with no remorse. When he wasn’t taking shots himself, he was commanding defensive attention and giving teammates open looks. Westbrook came alive early in the second, but he cooled right off again. His easy misses led to run-outs for the Blazers. Portland also cleaned up on the offensive glass. Meanwhile Paul George picked up his third foul with 5:54 left in the period, balancing the scales for McCollum.
The combination of star points, tempo pushing, rebounds, and inexplicable bricks from Westbrook was enough to get Portland out of a poor defensive half. A Seth Curry three put them ahead 56-55 with 1:42 left in the quarter. They took a three-point lead into the final seconds, but a George three at the buzzer made the score 61-60, Portland, at the half. 61 points for Portland was a testament to Lillard’s franchise-record-setting 34-point performance. 60 points for OKC shone a bright light on the work remaining on the defensive end.
Enes Kanter spent most of the second quarter favoring his left shoulder after an early collision. After a hard foul from Steven Adams with 7 seconds left in the half, Kanter went to the locker room. It would later be revealed that he had separated his shoulder.
The third period continued at a frenetic pace, interrupted only by intermittent fouls. George and Westbrook picked up their fourth and third, respectively, but Billy Donovan had no choice but to leave them in the elimination game. The Blazers earned their way into the penalty with 6:08 remaining, but couldn’t really take advantage. They hoisted outside shots. When they did get to the foul line, they missed free throws. That didn’t stop them from going on an 11-2, McCollum-fueled run mid-period. When Lillard hit a sideline three with 3:28 remaining, Portland led 84-75. The Moda Center went ballistic. The game appeared to be in the bag.
Confidence proved premature. Blazing out of a timeout, George propelled the Thunder to an 8-0 run of their own. He and Westbrook would carry the team through the remainder of the period. Despite decent offensive rebounding from Kanter, Oklahoma City ran the gauntlet and emerged unbowed, leading 90-88 at the end of three.
A Fourth Quarter Date With Fate
The gloves came off as both teams got down and dirty in the fourth period. The Thunder struck the first blow as Westbrook uncorked with a three followed by a couple of free throws. Then Dennis Schroder came alive, finding seams in Portland’s defense and scoring at will. The Thunder went small, forgetting about centers entirely. Jerami Grant’s mobility helped keep Portland on the move. Legs and emotions flagged. Grant’s layup off a Westbrook assist with 7:12 remaining put the Thunder up by 15, 107-92.
No matter what Oklahoma City wanted to believe, the evening was not over yet.
Though the night prior to this had belonged to Damian Lillard alone, Portland’s supporting cast made a dramatic comeback possible with their fourth-quarter play. McCollum started it with a floater in the paint, followed by two quick Moe Harkless dunks in succession off of Lillard passes...evidence that the Blazers had a little more juice left in their legs.
Just as Portland was re-discovering the team game, the Thunder fell prey to Westbrook-itis. Their point guard failed to find his star forward, instead lofting jumpers and driving one-against-the-world. He hit a shot. He even earned a triple-double. But McCollum and Harkless were tattooing notches into the scoreboard the entire time Russ was fooling around. Whenever George touched the ball, he scored or drew fouls. He just didn’t touch it enough.
The Blazers scored 28 points in the final eight minutes of the ballgame. Harkless and McCollum were responsible for 18 of them. In that same span, Westbrook contributed three misses, three turnovers, and three points.
The team effort on both ends pulled Portland into a 113-all tie at with 57 seconds remaining. George buried a mid-range jumper with 39 seconds left, the ease of which left a lump in Portland’s throat. If they did it correctly, the Thunder could score with near-impunity. Their doom arrived when Lillard took that “near” and ran it through the shredder. Less than seven seconds after George scored, Dame took it to the hoop to knot the score again at 115. 33 seconds remained.
The final shot of the Thunder’s season belonged to Westbrook. He ground the ball into the teeth of the defense for a credible, but ultimately futile, layup attempt. Al-Farouq Aminu grabbed the rebound and got it to Lillard. Game time read 17 seconds.
Protocol calls for draining the clock to its last ticks when tied, preventing any retaliation attempts. Protocol does not call for lofting a 37-foot bomb, defended by the opposing team’s best player. Damian Lillard does not care about protocol.
As the clock dwindled, Lillard signaled intentions to get to the three-point arc, if not further inside. Paul George had to worry for just a second whether Lillard would drive, so he stayed back. Lillard gave the tiniest hitch, causing George to lift a fraction of a centimeter off the floor, indecision and lack of traction paralyzing him for a nanosecond. George is an MVP-level defender. He realized his vulnerability as quickly as anyone could. The recovery was still too late, as Lillard arced the ball into NBA Playoffs history.
With the comeback complete and the Moda Center coming unglued, Lillard waved goodbye to the Thunder and walked off towards a date with the Denver Nuggets or San Antonio Spurs in Round 2 of the Western Conference Playoffs Bracket.
Hail the Hero
Lillard’s final stat line for the game read 50 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists on 52% shooting from the field, 56% shooting from the arc. He carried his team through a terrible first half. He also left another piece of video evidence testifying to his immortality, no longer just with the Blazers, but among the NBA greats. Lillard’s performance tonight was historical. He lacks repetition and rings, but he possesses every quality required to get them.
After the back-and-forth first half, the Blazers looked to be cruising to victory when they took that nine-point lead late in the third. The psychology of the moment almost became a trap. When Oklahoma City stormed back and put them down 15, it was like coming off the freeway and hitting a brick wall.
At that point, the Blazers could well have crumbled. They did crumble at a similar time in Game 3 of the series, facing a much smaller deficit. Theoretically, this would have been the moment for Lillard to wing all kinds of crazy shots. Instead Portland increased tempo instead of tension and got the lead back 2-3 points at a time instead of attempting to score 20 with one shot. They re-directed energy away from the referees (objects of frustration all night), concentrated on securing rebounds and loose balls, and honed in on Westbrook defensively. It would have been better had they never lost control of the game, but winning it back inspires confidence that they can persevere through further playoffs travails.
Stuff You Didn’t See (or Might Have Forgotten)
- Until the fourth period, everyone besides Lillard shot horribly. Even after the revival, the other nine Blazers shot 28-63 from the field, 3-17 from the arc.
- Moe Harkless made hay in the fourth by getting himself in smart position to score. Without his transition dunks when nobody else had the legs for it, the Blazers wouldn’t have made the turn-around.
- Portland went to town on offensive rebounds, a critical factor keeping them in the game. Enes Kanter provided 6 of Portland’s 13. He deserves massive credit.
- That said, OKC caused major problems for Portland with their smaller lineup. As predicted, as soon as they got Kanter moving on defense, the middle opened wide. All it took was a few mid- and long-range jumpers to pile up 30+ point quarters. This does not bode well for the future.
- The Blazers got away with their defensive shortcomings because of even more Thunder stupidity. Not since Portland bested Kevin McHale’s Rockets five years ago have we seen decisions this curious from an opponent. (Hint: “Curious” means “Ultra-Stinky Bad”.) Westbrook’s fourth-quarter charades can be forgiven. That’s Russ and that’s the Thunder. But Oklahoma City FINALLY played Kanter the way they should have all along, sacrificing offensive rebounds for easy points at the rim on the other end. Except Kanter’s separated shoulder left him dangling his arm obviously. That was the time to go up against him with Adams again, forcing him off the block and pounding him into submission. They didn’t bother. When they should have attacked Kanter’s legs, Oklahoma City attacked his upper body. When his upper body was finally vulnerable, they kept after his legs. Genius.
The Underrated Aspect of Victory
The Blazers now get to rest for a couple days...much needed, given their physical condition. Lillard played 45 minutes tonight. He would have been a gamer had the series gone back to Oklahoma City, but looking at him moving, recuperation is far better. Kanter obviously needs days off too. Portland will hope the San Antonio-Denver series goes 7 games, pushing the start date for Round 2 to early next week.
The Taste of Success
Congratulations to the Trail Blazers! They won this series not because they were as talented as the opponent, but because they played better and kept their focus. That’s a key to playoffs basketball they’ve not evidenced so far.
With this series win, Damian Lillard graduates from star to superstar and his team passes from young upstarts to veterans. No matter what else happens this year or in the future, they have played real, winning, high-level basketball. Once you’ve seen it, it cannot be unseen. Hopefully they’ll get a chance to absorb this experience and build on it.
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