Trail Blazers Look To Close Out Series By Leaving The Talking To Everyone Else
Considering the way Game Three in the first-round series between the Trail Blazers and Thunder played out, the expectation among many was that Game Four Sunday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena would be a rowdy and contentious affair.
Between Russell Westbrook's “rocking the baby” routine, Dennis Schroder mocking Damian Lillard’s “Dame Time” wrist tap, Paul George going for a highlight reel dunk in the last seconds of a game already decided, the number of fouls called and the disparity in free throw attempts, Moe Harkless being ejected for throwing his headband into the crowd after fouling out and players having to be separated after exchanging verbal barbs at mid-court after the final buzzer in Oklahoma City’s 120-108 victory in Game Three, there was ample reason to believe the trash talk and histrionics would boil over in Game Four, and with unpredictable results.
And in the first quarter, it looked as though that might be the case. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan was called for an early technical foul for complaining about the officiating and Westbrook picked up right where he left off in Game Three, yelling at both Lillard and the Portland bench after every made bucket. So when Westbrook made his second three of the game to cap an 11-2 run and put the Thunder up 46-39 to play, all indications were that the Blazers were going to get pulled into the pettiness.
But Portland had already decided that would not be the case. Perhaps knowing that engaging would only feed into the frenzy or simply because they had more pressing issues to attend to, the Trail Blazers entered Game Four with a mindset that they wouldn’t let their opponent, their fans nor the officials keep them from their goal of heading back to Portland with a chance to close out the series in Game Five.
“Being the road team, them being at home, this is the game where they would have had a chance to tie the series up, so you expect the excitement, you expect the passion,” said Lillard, who had plenty to say after Game Three about Oklahoma City’s antics. “But after last game it was like, a big deal being made out of the back and forth and we weren't emotional about it, we were just competing, we was just passionate about the game as well. We didn't really engage in it because our focus was our team.
“We said, like I told you guys, we not gonna come out here and go crazy on the referees, we're not going to go out here and get into any shouting matches, back and forth and all that stuff. We gonna focus on the stuff that we need to focus on that's going to give us a chance to win the game.”
That conscious decision to focus entirely on themselves paid off handily, with Portland answering every time the Thunder started to build even the slightest bit of momentum on the way to a convincing 111-98 victory in front of a dejected fan base that could be heard booing their team at times Sunday night.
“I think we are a lot more mature than we were in past years,” said CJ McCollum. “We can handle adversity. Understanding what we wanted to accomplish tonight and we did not want anything to get in our way. We don’t want anything to interfere with that. Multiple times we had discussions about not saying anything to anyone. If they do not have a black or gray jersey on, don’t talk to them. Talk to our team only. Don’t talk to the refs, don’t talk to the other team. Execute our game plan, and let’s get out of here with a win. And that was our mindset going into it.”
Every player in Portland’s locker room mentioned their vow to refrain from engaging Thunder players or the officials, indicating just how important they felt it was to maintain their composure after Game Three slipped away two nights prior.
“We never been the type of team to run off at the mouth or start something with other teams,” said Harkless. “We just play our team and we don't back down. Tonight was just an example of that. It was us to a T. They got out in the first half, they went on a run, they was talking. We weathered that storm before the half was over, we came into halftime with a lead and then we built on that in the third quarter.”
Despite being one of the youngest teams in the NBA and entering the 2019 Playoffs having been swept out of the last two postseasons, Portland, behind the leadership of Lillard and McCollum, conducted themselves Sunday night like the veteran team that won 53 games while earning the three-seed in the West for the second straight year.
“They're obviously a competitive team, no one wants to lose so we knew we're going to get their best shot, obviously there's going to be a little bit of chatter,” said Zach Collins. “We just had to keep our heads, stick to our game plan and stick to what we do and I think Dame and CJ did a really good job of setting that tone and making sure that it was us against everybody. We don't need to talk to the refs, we don't need to talk to the other team. They did a good job of setting that tone.”
Carrying that tone over into Game Five and beyond will be important if the Trail Blazers are to advance out of the first round for the first time in the last three seasons. While teams that take 3-1 leads in a best-of-seven playoff series go on to win the vast majority of the time, one need not look too far back in NBA Playoff history to find examples of teams overcoming those long odds. But if the Blazers continue to focus on the right things going forward, their chances of winning their first round series, and perhaps a bit more, improves dramatically.
Said Terry Stotts: “It’s good to be going home and having a chance to close them out, but I don’t think our demeanor, I don’t think our approach is going to chance in Game Five versus the games before that.”