The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Portland Trail Blazers in game 1 of their opening playoff series, 104-99. In a game where Portland led nearly throughout, they used a big offensive 1st quarter to put the Thunder on their heels (not the first time we’ve seen this from OKC), and were able to continuously keep OKC down by multiple possessions until the final buzzer.
Coming out of the gates hot, the Blazers raced out to a 39-25 lead after one quarter. On the shoulders of their backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland shot 60% overall and 7-10 from three. The Thunder, despite having an effective game plan early, could not keep pace from long range, though they tried. OKC shot 0-6 from three in the opening quarter, and an abysmal 2-18 through the first half.
Yet despite the bad shooting, the Thunder used the free throw line and aggressive defense to slowly work back into the game. They held Portland to only 30% shooting and 15 total points in the 2nd quarter, giving them a shot to take momentum heading into the 2nd half.
However, the second half was more of the same. The Thunder struggled to make shots from anywhere on the court, despite keeping themselves in contention (under 40% for the entire game). Even in their best offensive output of the game in the 4th, they still only shot 2-9 from three, and could not make up the difference as time ran out on them.
The big question mark coming out of game 1 is the struggles of Paul George. The Blazers used an effective trapping system that we have seen other teams deploy, and they have the personnel to do it with the likes of Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. George seldom found space to operate, which led to 4 turnovers, 6 fouls disqualifying him, and a lot of frustration. However, this defense was coupled with some horrific shooting from George, who could never find the range until late. Through three quarters, he was 5-19 from the floor and 2-11 from three, many of them open misses.
His bad shooting from downtown carried over to his teammates, who were a collective 3-24 from three through 3 quarters (as Portland was shooting a cool 9-18). We all knew Portland would be the superior-shooting team, that isn’t a surprise. But for OKC to shoot only 5-33 from three (15%), many of them open looks, that simply isn’t good enough, particularly since Portland is allowing Russell Westbrook to dig into the lane and defend him there.
Westbrook for his part played a solid floor game, finishing with 24-10-10 on 8-17 shooting (8-8 from the FT line). Aside from an 0-4 night from three, he had a pretty clear understanding of OKC’s game plan, and he ran it well. He operated the 1-5 pick and roll with Steven Adams (17-9, 6 ORBs), and Adams (and Nerlens Noel — 8 points on 4-5 shooting, 5 ORBs) proved OKC can own the interior. The problem was the shooting around him. I think the Thunder absolutely ran the offense they need to, but their shooting was so bad they could never give themselves a chance to win.
Adams’ counterpart and former-and-forever Stache Bro Enes Kanter had a game. He finished with 20-18, with 7 ORBs, and there are two things to point out here. The first is that when Kanter scales his minutes, this is absolutely the kind of offensive production you can expect. He’s an offensive throwback. The second point — and the problem — is that OKC’s only real offensive misstep was that they didn’t force him to become a net-negative. You don’t play Kanter off the court by going straight at him with another big (he finished with 2 blocks and a steal). You play him off the court by putting him in open space, where you can then force him to move his feet to adapt, which in turn collapses the entire defense, leading to open layups and threes. We saw this early when Adams was cruising to the rim, but less so as the game went on as the space condensed while threes were clanking away.
There are plenty of positive takeaways from this game where OKC’s offense was about as bad as we’ve seen, yet was within two possessions with under a minute to play. Their defense can adapt and control the Blazers when the offense isn’t running through Lillard. After that 7-10 opening frame, OKC’s defense held Portland to only 4-15 from three, and 36% shooting overall the rest of the way. But OKC simply can’t have that kind of shooting night again. It isn’t good enough.
As for Paul George, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Gregg Popovich regarding his super-forward Kawhi Leonard during the 2014 Finals. Pop basically said, “we can’t win unless you play well.” OKC can’t win this if George doesn’t play well. And yes, he fought through plenty of struggles and was productive in a lot of ways (10 boards, 4 steals), but the Thunder can’t win if their best offensive player can’t make shots.