The Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Portland Trail Blazers at home in game 3, 120-108. In a hotly contested affair that ratcheted up to 11 as the game wore on, the Thunder finally put together the stingy defense and opportunistic offense that make them good enough to win a game. In a battle of elite point guards, Russell Westbrook finally came out slightly ahead of Damian Lillard, and because of it the Thunder will live to fight one more meaningful game.
Allow me to set aside for one brief moment my analyst cap...
Wow, what an awesome playoff game, made only slightly more awesome because the Thunder actually managed to hang on for the win. Had it gone the other way? I’m not sure I would have felt that much differently.
Hat back on...
The Thunder defense showed up in the first half after getting shredded in the 2nd half of game 2. Using a much better defensive strategy that I’m sure they spotted after reading Ben’s post, the Thunder consistently forced the ball out of Portland’s backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, once again proving that without those two cooking, the Blazers look like a very different team. The pair finished the 1st half with only 11 points on 4-13 shooting. Pity the Thunder offense never really got on track...
But unlike games 1 and 2, the Thunder managed to build a double-digit halftime lead with a defense that held Portland to only 38% shooting and 6-17 from three, while forcing the Blazers into 14 turnovers, holding them to only 39 1st half points.
With such a defensive battle, of course after halftime the script completely flipped.
McCollum was the opening act, helping get his team’s offense going, but then Lillard was the Metallica show, as he used the 3rd quarter as his personal playground as he rained hellfires from the sky. Lillard produced 25 in the quarter and somehow it felt like twice as much, because he was sinking everything he put up — from deep, contested threes to finishes at the rim over multiple defenders. His arrows blotted out the sun, and smoke trailed off the fletchings. It was as glorious as it was painful to watch as a Thunder fan, and it felt like a boxing round where you hope your fighter can just stay on his feet until the bell rings, only it seems like it will never get there.
And yet somehow, the Thunder kept pace. In the midst of Portland dropping 43 in the 3rd to make it a game, OKC pushed back, scoring 37 of their own. And it wasn’t a shooting display like Portland’s, but rather grinding out points over and over again to prevent a collapse. Despite shooting only 41% in the quarter, they got to the free throw line 14 times. Even more importantly, maligned players Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant showed up big time at home. The pair combined for 16 in the quarter and 4-5 from three, finally giving OKC some secondary offensive boost they’ve sorely needed. And for Grant, even though he still struggled trying to deal with Maurice Harkless and Enes Kanter down low, finally justified to some extent his minutes, finishing with 18 points on 6-7 shooting, including 4-5 from three.
And yet the Blazers were not done, because after a quick push in the 4th, after trailing by as much as 16 in the 3rd, a McCollum three tied things up in the 4th at 89-all. But with 10 minutes remaining, OKC had to keep producing points. With Paul George struggling with his shot once again (3-16, 2-7 from three), OKC turned to their backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder.
The “can’t play Kanter” meme has kind of taken on new meaning in this series, as Billy Donovan simply hasn’t done enough to force him off the court, which has led Kanter to play well against Steven Adams. So it was again tonight, as Kanter finished with 19 points on 9-14 shooting, including clutch buckets in the 4th. But this time, OKC had a rejoinder, as Schroder and Steven Adams (Steve finished with a bafflingly paltry 6 shot attempts on the night) put Kanter in a blender. On 4 to 5 plays in a row, Schroder used an Adams screen to get Kanter one-on-one, and Dennis finished with 8 crucial points in the quarter, keeping Portland down by 1-2 possessions for several key minutes.
Which set the stage for Westbrook.
If Lillard was dropping fire arrows from the sky, Westbrook was breathing fire as he and Lillard went head-to-head in the 4th, jawing at each other non-stop. I’ve honestly never seen Lillard get so into an individual matchup, and I wonder if it took him off his 3rd quarter game just enough so that, when OKC’s trapping defense regained its footing in the 4th, Lillard’s concentration broke. He was held without a made shot in the quarter, missed both threes, and could muster only 3 made free throws.
Meanwhile, Westbrook — who was straddling the line between belching fireballs and self-combusting — was able to channel his energy into a pretty remarkable 4th, finishing with 14 points on 5-6 shooting, including two clutch threes, one of which was in Lillard’s grill. Russ even managed to pick up a tech after Lillard went to the bench for good, for some reason taunting young Anfernee Simons, who was probably just confused and wondering why the honey badger was pointing at him. In the end, Russ finished with 33-11-5, while Dame had 32-6-4.
All in all, the Thunder held serve in a game they had to win in order to have a chance in this series, while the Blazers — despite OKC finally shooting well at 48% from the floor and 15-29 from three — nearly beat them anyway. OKC still desperately needs George’s shooting, but for a night, Westbrook proved once again he knows how to lead his team to fight another day.
I think I can stop sweating now, at least for another 24 hours.