After an arduous and punishing season of 82 games, the 2019 NBA Playoffs are about to begin. The field includes the Portland Trail Blazers as the Western Conference’s third seed, and their opponent is a team that’s been, to quote Russell Westbrook, “whuppin’ that ass” all season long: the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There are positives and negatives to the situation the Blazers are in, just like in almost any situation in life. It helps that the Blazers are on the opposite side of the bracket from the Golden State Warriors, for once; if Portland is fortunate enough to get past the Thunder, they’ll face either the inexperienced Denver Nuggets or the aging San Antonio Spurs instead of the greatest team of our generation.
Another plus is the Thunder’s relative weakness. OKC closed out the season with a few whimpers and winces, as Paul George’s mysterious shoulder issues affected his shooting. As I said earlier in the week, as George goes, so do the Thunder. If he can’t score enough to supplement the stellar OKC defense and Westbrook’s all-around game, the team has a really tough road to victory.
There’s no getting around the fact that this is still a pretty rough draw for Portland. Oklahoma City swept the season series from the Blazers, and while the games were for the most part close to the end, the Thunder were able to squeeze out enough offense to win—and squeeze Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum into rough shooting nights.
Apex PG has been too much for Portland to handle, and Westbrook has been on the warpath against the Blazers ever since Lillard yelled at Jusuf Nurkic during a game to let Westbrook shoot an open baseline jumper from 12 feet. Nurk complied, standing a foot in front of Russ with his arms down, and Westbrook bricked the shot off the side of the rim. Ever since that incident, Westbrook has been a man on a mission against Rip City.
It also can’t be understated how volatile and competitive these two teams have been when they’ve played. Westbrook is a damn psycho cut from the cloth of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and Steven Adams is a brick wall and a gadfly melded into a chiseled seven-foot frame. These guys get under the skin of everybody, but they seem to take particular delight in needling Lillard and Nurkic. Nurk won’t be playing in this series (or any series this year, and maybe next year), but Dame was always going to be Public Enemy No. 1 in Oklahoma City, both because he’s the Blazers’ best player and because he’s buried OKC with a couple huge shots in years past.
The Blazers can’t let Westbrook and Adams’ mind games fluster them like they did in the regular season. That’s a tall order considering what happened the last time these teams met. I was in the stands, watching while Westbrook and George basically did a WWE-style tag team finisher on poor Nurk, and the refs somehow thought the Bosnian was flopping. It was absurd; the only way it would have been more obvious was if George and Westbrook each climbed to the top of the hoops and did a tandem frog splash on Nurkic. Keeping their cool when foul calls don’t go their way will be paramount for Portland.
Some other thoughts and notes:
Whichever injured star has the better games will determine who wins this series. While we went over George’s struggles, CJ McCollum has been working his way back from a strained popliteus muscle in his knee. The Thunder are going to lock in on Lillard, so McCollum needs to be more aggressive in hunting for his shot than he was last year. If Oklahoma City sticks George on him during their defensive possessions, then it gets really hard to score—unless Enes Kanter goes off.
Speaking of Kanter…dude still remains bad at basketball. Don’t let the numbers fool you. He gives all that back and more on the defensive end, and almost blew the Lakers game with silly turnovers. There are good reasons why he lost his starting job in Oklahoma City when he was there, and Adams is going to demonstrate those reasons on national TV. At least we can be shot of him after the season.
George has burned every defense the Blazers sent at him, but keep trying. Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, and Evan Turner have been almost helpless in the face of PG’s barrage, but perhaps he can be bothered a bit with that bad shoulder. If all else fails, doubling him is an option; if George gets hot, I’d rather get the ball out of his hands by any means at hand then watch my wings get destroyed.
Scrounge for those extra points. Rebounding is going to be huge in this series, with Adams eating space so Westbrook can pad his stats with uncontested rebounds on defense. The big Kiwi is also a force on the offensive glass and is strong enough to shove anybody away from the boards. Portland has been a top rebounding team all season, but that was with Nurkic manning the middle. Kanter and Zach Collins are going to be in for a tough series; getting the wings to help out on defensive rebounding will be necessary, and Lillard needs to track Westbrook when a shot goes up, and try to get his body on him.
First Round Schedule
Game 1: Sunday, April 14, @ Portland, 12:30 PM, ABC
Game 2: Tuesday, April 16, @ Portland, 7:30 PM, TNT
Game 3: Friday, April 19, @ Oklahoma City, 6:30 PM, ESPN
Game 4: Sunday, April 21, @ Oklahoma City, 6:30 PM, TNT
*Game 5: Tuesday, April 23, @ Portland, TBD, TNT
*Game 6: Thursday, April 25, @ Oklahoma City, TBD, TNT
*Game 7: Saturday, April 27, @ Portland, TBD, TNT
Prediction: Oklahoma City in 5