9:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Thunder -7.5, Over/Under: 221.5
After the first two gams of their First Round Series went to the home side, the Third-Seeded Portland Trail Blazers head to Oklahoma City to face the Sixth-Seeded Thunder in an attempt to take a commanding 3-0 lead, from Chesapeake Energy Arena. For the sixth consecutive season, the Trail Blazers (53-29, 4th in Western Conference) are back in the Playoffs, though this time we would imagine that they have designs on traveling a bit deeper than they’ve grown accustomed to. You see, since Terry Stotts was hired back in 2012-2013, this team has failed to progress past the Western Conference Semifinals in each trip to the Postseason. However, if we’re being completely honest, their struggles run far deeper than Stotts, for this franchise hasn’t advanced past that point since 2000, with a whopping NINE First Round Exits in Eleven tries. One of the more consistent teams in the league, Portland has long existed squarely in that second tier of contenders in the habitually crowded Western Conference; they’re not on the level of the Warriors, or even the Rockets, but they are god enough to make those teams sweat more than a few bullets. However, last year’s shocking sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, in which they were heavily favored as the Third Seed, opened many eyes throughout the organization, leaving many to wonder if this team as presently constructed could ever get over the proverbial hump. Is it time to replace Stotts on the Bench? Is Damian Lillard (25.8 PTS, 44.4% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.1 STL, 23.7 PER) the franchise player that they need him to be? Is C.J. McCollum (21.0 PTS, 45.9% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 17.0 PER) enough in a supporting role? Have they all reached the end of their cycle together? Though these are all very legitimate questions, the Blazers marched through the Regular Season, and as they had a year ago, turned up the heat after the All-Star Break, winning Nineteen of their final Twenty-Five Games, thanks in large part to an Offense that was firing on all cylinders, averaging 117.7 Points on 47.4% shooting from the field, while dishing out more Assists (23.4) and committing fewer Turnovers (12.8), and absolutely bludgeoning their opponents on the glass, outrebounding them by 7.6 Boards per Game. Then, as they say, fate revealed her hand… Stotts & Co. unfortunately lost towering Bosnian Center, Jusuf Nurkic (15.6 PTS, 50.8% FG, 10.4 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 23.4 PER), to a gruesome fractured leg in late March, leaving them without a sizable part of the Starting Five, on both ends of the floor. Furthermore, they had been matched up with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the First Round of the playoffs, a team that had beaten in all four of their meetings during the Regular Season. Needless to say, many were calling for this 4/5 Matchup to be an upset. Bucking conventional wisdom, the 104-99 affair played out differently than theorized… Despite being branded an underdog, Portland came out guns blazing (no pun intended) outscoring the visiting side 39-25 in the First Quarter, though slowly saw their lead diminish over time. The Thunder pulled within 93-92 with just over Two Minutes left to play, but Lillard, who scored a game-high Thirty Points, nailed a clutch Three-Pointer to build a more comfortable cushion. With Nurkic sidelined, the Trail Blazers received a strong performance from his replacement Enes Kanter (13.1 PTS, 57.7% FG, 8.6 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.4 BLK, 23.5 PER), whom the team signed after clearing waivers just before the All-Star Break. Long maligned for his effort on the defensive end, the big Turkish International had arguably the finest Postseason showing of his career, with Twenty Points, Eighteen Rebounds (Seven Offensive), Two Assists, a Steal, and a pair of Blocks. McCollum, who missed ten outings down the wire with a strained knee, scored Twenty-Four Points despite 9-of-24 shooting (37.5%).
It appears that there may be something to the Blazers using last year’s early elimination as fuel, for while Game One was a reasonably competitive affair, it’s successor was not, as the hosts absolutely put it on the Thunder in the Second Half of Tuesday Night’s 114-94 victory. Despite trailing 26-31 at the end of the First Quarter, and heading into Halftime squared away at 54-54, Portland caught fire in the third stanza, outscoring Oklahoma City 37-21 en route to a commanding 60-40 over the final 24:00. You’d never thought that this team was swept in the Regular Season by their counterpart, as they shot 46.7% from the field, including 13-of-32 from beyond the arc (40.6%), with their dynamic duo of Lillard and McCollum accounting for Sixty-Two Points on 22-of-43 shooting (51.2%), including a scorching 7-of-15 from downtown (46.7%), along with Eleven Assists. After posting Twenty Points and Eighteen Rebounds over the Weekend, Kanter came back down to Earth a considerable bit, struggling to deal with the visitors’ size in the Paint, winding up with just Six Points and Five Rebounds. During the First Half, he took a hard hit to his hand, suffering a bruise that in all likelihood limited his effectiveness throughout the remainder of the affair. However, the home side found production in other places, with Maurice Harkless (7.7 PTS, 48.7% FG, 27.5% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.9 BLK, 13.2 PER) stepping up and logging Fourteen Points and Nine Rebounds, while Seth Curry (7.9 PTS, 45.6% FG, 45.0% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 0.9 AST, 0.5 STL, 11.4 PER) came off the Bench to drill 3-of-4 from three (75.0%), totaling Nine Points in just over Eighteen Minutes of action. After losing Ten straight Postseason Contests, Stotts’ troops and coming into this Series as underdogs despite possessing Home Court Advantage, these past two wins mark the first time that they’ve done so to begin a Series since 2014.
Meanwhile, some would argue that the Basketball Gods have finally smiled upon the Thunder (49-33, 6th in Western Conference), who after limping through the final third of the Regular Season, managed to stop the bleeding before the final tolled, and wound up with a better Postseason Matchup than they could have imagined. You see, on the penultimate night of the Regular Season, Oklahoma City seemed fated to meet the surging Houston Rockets in the First Round of the Playoffs, which for a variety of reasons was anything ideal for Billy Donovan and his charges. However, in winning their final five outings, including that meeting with the Rockets, coupled with some other events happening, this team ended up punching a First Round date with the Portland Trail Blazers, who as we detailed earlier, were without their starting Center, Jusuf Nurkic, for the rest of the campaign, and were swept in four encounters by these Thunder. Talk about good fortune… After all, this was one of the few teams this season in which OKC dominated on the offensive end of the court, averaging 120.8 Points on 46.5% shooting from the field, including 39.3% from beyond the arc, while dishing out 20.8 Assists in comparison to committing just 11.8 Turnovers. Furthermore, Paul George (28.0 PTS, 43.8% FG, 38.6% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 4.1 AST, 2.2 STL, 0.4 BLK, 23.3 PER), who had spent the majority of the season in the MVP conversation, torched the Blazers in those four meetings, averaging a whopping 38.0 Points on 45.2% shooting from the floor, including 45.9% from downtown, along with 10.5 Rebounds, and 5.5 Assists, while former MVP, Russell Westbrook (22.9 PTS, 42.8% FG, 29.0% 3FG, 11.1 REB, 10.7 AST, 1.9 STL, 0.5 BLK, 21.1 PER), added 29.5 Points, 10.0 Rebounds, and 8.8 Assists to boot. With that said, ladies and gentlemen, there is a damn good reason why these games are decided on the court rather than on paper, for Donovan’s troops rarely enjoyed any of the advantages of the Regular Season in Game One’s 99-104 defeat at the Moda Center. First and foremost, they shot a miserable 39.8% from the field, including an abysmal 5-of-33 from downtown (15.2%), while struggling mightily to take care of the basketball throughout the affair, committing Sixteen Turnovers. George, who has suffered from the effects of a sore shooting shoulder since the All-Star Break totaled Twenty-Six Points, but was anything but efficient, netting just 8-of-24 attempts overall (33.3%), and 4-of-15 from long-range (26.7%). Westbrook, fresh off of averaging a Triple-Double for the THIRD straight season, posted another one (22 PTS, 10 REB, 10 AST), though limped through much of the Fourth Quarter after turning his right ankle. Steven Adams (13.9 PTS, 59.5% FG, 9.5 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.5 STL, 1.0 BLK, 18.5 PER) was a typical menace around the rim (9 REB, 6 Offensive), even chipping in with Seventeen Points, but was largely negated by the exploits of Nurkic.
As we stated earlier, you would never have known that the Thunder had swept the Blazers in their four meetings during the Regular Season based off of their performance in this Series thus far. Yes, the Playoffs are competed at a higher level than the Regular Season, and while we’re at it, these teams appear to be completely different than when they met throughout the previous six months. While they certainly had their opportunities to steal Game One on the road, Billy Donovan’s troops were only ever in control of this affair in the First Quarter, with Portland wrestling it from them throughout the second frame, before exploding in the Second Half of the 94-114 drubbing. Tuesday’s defeat marked Oklahoma City’s eleventh consecutive road loss in the Playoffs, which dates back to three years ago. So what the hell has changed for these guys, that they we went from holding their counterpart’s number, to getting punked twice in less than a week? Well, the biggest problem has been a persistent one for the Thunder, who have once again struggled to knock down open Three-Pointers; this should come as little of a surprise, for during the Season, this was NOT their strong suit, netting just 34.8% of their attempts from beyond the arc (22nd Overall), diminishing considerably during this Series to an anemic 16.4%. In Game Two alone the visitors were just 5-of-28 (17.9%), with the aforementioned George, who continues to play through a nagging sore shooting shoulder, connecting on only 6-of-22 attempts (27.3%). As a team thus far, they’ve been outscored in this regard decisively by a whopping Forty-Two Points, or in other words, a mere 22.0 Points per Game. Despite proving much more successful closer to the basket, George scored a team-high Twenty-Seven Points on 11-of-20 shooting (55.0%), while Westbrook nearly registered another Triple-Double (14 PTS, 9 REB, 11 AST), though struggled mightily from the field, shooting 5-of-20 overall (25.0%). Of other note, this affair was particularly physical with a grand total of Fifty-Four Personal Fouls called, with Twenty-Nine being whistled in the First Half alone. Clearly these teams don’t like one another…