Game 3 Rewind: Aggressive Thunder Earns Victory

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Digital Reporter | mailbag@okcthunder.com

In the first two games, the Thunder was aching for them to drop. Over the past two days, players and coaches insisted that here, in Oklahoma City, they would. Tonight, on the second possession of the game, a Thunder role player buried a corner three, the lid was lifted off the rim, the roof separated from the building and the stranglehold loosened away from Portland in this series.

As a part of a 15-for-29 shooting night from behind the arc as a team, Thunder forward Jerami Grant splashed a triple to open up the game, helping his team get back some feel-good vibes right away in a 120-108 home win over the Trail Blazers. The victory gives the Thunder more air, pulling to within 2-1 in the first round series between feisty Northwest Division rivals.

Despite the Thunder’s barrage of three-pointers, including five from behind the arc in the first quarter and two half-court shots by fans in the Mid First Bank Shot Contest, the opening 24 minutes of this game was a total defensive struggle.

In addition to working harder by hustling over screens and trying to get back in front of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Thunder also worked smarter with the positioning of its big man and guard in pick-and-roll defense. Three-pointers off the dribble and downhill drives to the paint were both discouraged in the coverage, and the Thunder forced 14 first half turnovers that led to 15 points while holding Lillard and McCollum to just six three-point attempts.

“Just influencing them one way and just trapping them,” said Adams. “The guards did a really good job tonight, just getting in [and] influencing them one way. It makes the big’s job a lot easier.”

The defensive stops gave the Thunder some flow and confidence, as role players Grant, Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schröder combined to make their first 9 three-point attempts in the game. The Thunder’s team effort helped take the opening half, generating a 10-point, 49-39 Thunder lead heading into the break.

Portland scored 44 points in the third quarter. In an absolutely phenomenal offensive explosion after a Paul George four-point play and Westbrook post-up three-point play, Lillard and McCollum got loose on some quick screening actions and fueled a 13-3 run. They buried 5-of-6 third quarter three-pointers but once the Thunder started pressuring up higher, Lillard used that aggressiveness as an opportunity to attack downhill, scoring relentlessly at the rim for 25 points in the period.

The Thunder responded with 4 free throws by Paul George (22 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists), part of a 31-for-39 mark from the stripe, and a catch and shoot three from Westbrook, who finished the game with 33 points on 11-of-22 shooting. Early in the fourth quarter, however, McCollum hit another three that tied the game at 89, and the Thunder was officially on the ropes in a must-win situation at home.

“If guys are open, you have to make the right play and trust your teammates.”

-Russell Westbrook

The response was stellar. After the game hung in the balance for a few possessions, Westbrook fired himself into the middle of the floor and hit a tough runner through contact to complete an old-fashioned three-point play. Westbrook then utilized the man of the night, Grant, in two completely different type of actions to show off just how versatile the Thunder forward can be. First it was another corner three, again from the right side, that Grant buried. One possession later, Westbrook picked Grant as a pick and roll partner instead of Steven Adams, and the Thunder point guard slipped in a perfect pass for an easy finish at the cup.

“(Westbrook) came out and he led. We got behind him. He put us on his back,” George reviewed.

“We are going to continue to trust, make the right play,” said Westbrook. “If guys are open, you have to make the right play and trust your teammates.”

That 10-3 spurt gave the Thunder a 99-92 lead with 8:07 remaining, and Portland never got closer than 5 points the rest of the way. The Thunder’s lead alternated between 6 and 8 points for the next five minutes, with each possession adding to the knife’s edge feeling inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Then, late in the fourth quarter, Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan threw out a new wrinkle. Recognizing Lillard’s ability to attack off the dribble against center Steven Adams, Donovan surprised Portland by putting George on the ball as the primary defender, then slid Grant over to defend the center spot, putting some extra quickness in front of Lillard’s shot-and-drive attempts.

“We just did a good job as a team, coaching staff and player, making adjustments,” said Grant. “Seeing in the third quarter, they were getting downhill. A lot of time it was off the pick-and-roll, whether it’s splitting or bending the corner. So, we just wanted to put me up there and make sure they couldn’t get to the basket off the pick-and roll.”

“That was really the game plan, to throw different bodies at them, different length, and different players at them,” added George.

The well-timed maneuver got the Blazers out of rhythm to try and stage a comeback, and the Thunder rode out the victory with a Westbrook post up jumper in the middle of the lane then a double-clutch three-pointer on the right wing to seal this crucial playoff victory. Tonight, shots fell and the Thunder did the dirty work. They’ll need that combo again in Game 4 to make this a best-of-three series.


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Five Thunder players scored in double figures on 27 assists in the win.

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