The Trail Blazers ascension to the second round of the NBA Playoffs is rightfully tied to the heroic performance of Damian Lillard. The lion’s share of credit belongs to Lillard, but the story shouldn’t stop there in regards to Portland’s stellar series versus Oklahoma City. Against the Thunder, a handful of unheralded role players rose to the occasion to give the Blazers a much-needed postseason boost.
Outside of the Blazers’ outstanding backcourt, here is a look at the other performers that took center stage in Portland’s triumphant five-game series against OKC.
Can Play Kanter
Enes Kanter trudged through a relegated role on the Knicks before he arrived in Portland after the All-Star break. His long-standing reputation as a defense-less big man earned him a spot behind Jusuf Nurkic in the regular season. Nurkic’s gruesome leg injury thrust Kanter into the starting lineup and pinned a significant amount of the Blazers’ postseason hopes on the Turkish big man’s shoulders. Through five games, Kanter rose to the occasion.
Competing against his former coach that labelled him unplayable in the playoffs, Kanter delivered a set of matchup problems to Billy Donovan. Outside of Steven Adams’ flow-killing post moves, Kanter repeatedly held his own on the defensive end. Offensively, Kanter forced Donovan to make an impossible decision with his everyday center. If Adams stuck with Kanter, Lillard torched the Thunder’s big man off of screens. When matched against non-Adams opponents, Kanter feasted on the offensive glass.
Kanter finished the first round averaging 13.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. The Blazers will need their replacement center at full strength in the second round to keep rolling. Hopefully Portland’s extended amount of rest will provide the correct remedy for Kanter’s ailing shoulder.
Maurice Harkless effectively carried his late-season momentum into the postseason. Defensively, Harkless cranked up the intensity against Paul George. When he avoided the referee’s whistle, Harkless seemed to contest every shot the Thunder’s star attempted. He produced two three-block games in five contests and led Portland by wide margin in per game rejections (1.6).
Outside of his relentless defense, Harkless masterfully made himself available for favorable shot attempts in big moments. He closed the series with back-to-back double-digit outings and shot a superb 50 percent on his attempts that occurred with less than seven seconds left on the shot clock. After struggling from the free throw line through three quarters of Game 5, Harkless went a perfect 4-4 from the charity stripe with under five minutes remaining.
Harkless finished the series against the Thunder as the Blazers’ fourth-leading scorer (11 points per game).
Al-Farouq Aminu: Coupled with Harkless’ defensive effort, Aminu provided ample pressure on the Thunder’s stars. The 28-year-old veteran kept his turnovers in check throughout the series and provided the Blazers with 19 points in a crucial bounce-back victory in Game 4.
Meyers Leonard: His numbers don’t jump off the page, but that shouldn’t detract from Leonard’s timely impact. In Game 2, Leonard sparked the Blazers’ offense by setting bone-crushing screens for Lillard. Kanter’s awkward fall in the second quarter of that contest paved the way for Leonard to secure a positive 17 +/- figure. If Kanter’s shoulder injury hinders his start to round two, coach Terry Stotts will need Leonard to be at his best.
Anfernee Simons: Portland’s promising rookie only appeared in five minutes of action in the first round, but let’s not forget it was his 37-point outburst against Sacramento that served OKC on a silver platter.
Need a reminder? Here are the highlights from Simons’ big night against the Kings:
A highlight waiting to happen: Simons drops career-high pic.twitter.com/wQqfy5GKt1— NBC Sports Northwest (@NBCSNorthwest) March 28, 2019
Jusuf Nurkic: There is no real way to gauge the impact that Nurkic’s Game 5 appearance had. However, it is tough to argue with the run that the Blazers enjoyed once the big fella arrived on the sideline.
We want to hear from you. Who are your unsung heroes of the Blazers’ first-round victory?