Russell Westbrook has something to prove. He plays like it at all times. So does Damian Lillard, another member of the NBA’s ultimate competitor club.
And when two of the league’s elite point guards and big game performers get the opportunity to square up in a playoff series, fireworks should be expected.
But the No. 3-6 matchup in the Western Conference playoffs is about much more than just Westbrook and Lillard.
It’s a clash of two teams with plenty to prove, both to themselves after first-round flameouts a year ago. And to the rest of the Western Conference. They need to show some signs that they can be a factor in determining who survives and advances to the championship round this time around.
The Trail Blazers, the No. 3 seed for the second straight season, are still dealing with the aftershocks of being swept by the New Orleans Pelicans last season. And this time around they are also dealing with the loss of their starting center Jusuf Nurkic (broken leg), whose presence will be sorely missed with Thunder big man Steven Adams waiting to impose his will in the lane on both ends of the floor.
Lillard and C.J. McCollum need a postseason breakthrough to prove that they can carry the franchise to that next level.
Westbrook and Paul George are in search of a similar breakthrough after being upset by the Utah Jazz in their first postseason foray together last season.
They’re clearly one of the league’s most dynamic 1-2 punches, elite two-way players capable of triple-doubles (Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the third straight season) and MVP-caliber performances on demand. But can their combined brilliance lift up a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since Kevin Durant was still wearing a Thunder uniform?
The stakes are sky-high for both sides, as is the pressure to deliver that breakthrough postseason performance.
And you know the spotlight will be electric in two of the league’s best atmospheres in both Portland and Oklahoma City, which is just the way cut-throat competitors like Westbrook and Lillard like it.
Three things to watch
1. Can Enes Kanter fill the void left by Nurkic against his old team? It’s a tall task for Kanter or anyone on the Trail Blazers roster to step into the role Nurkic played this season before going down. No one knows Kanter’s strengths and weaknesses better than Adams and the Thunder. He’s a scoring machine and an excellent rebounder but doesn’t scare anyone with his defensive prowess. Kanter thrived in his reserve role before Nurkic went down and kept it up when his role changed. But the pressure ratchets up considerably in the postseason, especially when you realize what’s at stake for both sides.
2. How big of a concern is Paul George’s sore shoulder? It’s a huge concern for the Thunder, who can’t survive in the postseason without both George and Westbrook operating at their superstar best. That said, George has shown an ability to play through whatever pain he’s in (see his game-winner over Houston Tuesday night) and deliver when the Thunder need it most. The playoff schedule works in his favor for rest purposes. But the key will be finding someone to help alleviate some of the defensive burden he’d normally have to carry so he can pick and choose his spots in this series.
3. How much stock should be put into the Thunder’s 4-0 regular season sweep of the Trail Blazers? Plenty. Even though the Thunder are technically considered the underdog in this series, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they dominated the regular season series. For context’s sake, the only other postseason matchup featuring a 4-0 regular season sweep is the No. 1 Milwaukee-No. 8 Detroit matchup in the Eastern Conference. Using that as some sort of launch point for measuring what these teams will do in a postseason setting, however, is a bit shortsighted. The circumstances in a regular season series can never duplicate the pressure-packed, compressed nature that a playoff series provides. And the urgency both teams will play with now is on another level compared to anything they experienced in those regular season matchups.
The number to know
1.08 -- Damian Lillard scored 1.08 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the best mark among 43 players that averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game, according to Synergy play-type tracking. Both Lillard (51.4 percent) and C.J. McCollum (51.8 percent) ranked in the top five in pull-up effective field goal percentage among 41 players who attempted at least five pull-up jumpers per game, with McCollum one of three players who shot better than 50 percent on at least 200 mid-range attempts.
The Thunder defense, meanwhile, allowed just 0.79 points per possession on pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions, the league's second best mark. With their aggressive scheme and two All-Stars that ranked in the top 10 in deflections per game, they led the league in the percentage of those opponent possessions that resulted in a turnover. This is one of two first-round series that features a top-five offense vs. a top-five defense, and the frontline of that battle will be on possessions where the Blazers' guards have the ball on the move.
-- John Schuhmann
Redemption is the name of the game for both teams in this series. The Trail Blazers are dealing with an injury absence in Nurkic that they simply cannot compensate for given the role he was playing alongside Lillard and McCollum this season. The motivation to put to rest the memory of that sweep to the Pelicans should fuel the Blazers this time around. He’d never admit it, but Westbrook’s determination to show that he and George are every bit the 1-2 punch he and Durant once were, is real. This is his chance to deliver against an opponent he considers worthy. Both sides dig in for the distance. Trail Blazers in 7.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.