Damian Lillard needed just 22 seconds to shake off the burden of an embarrassing first-round sweep in last year’s NBA playoffs.
The Portland Trail Blazers guard swished a deep three-pointer on his first touch and proceeded to score a game-high 30 points in a 104-99 win over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. Lillard’s opening shot was a tone-setter, a message to teammates and opponents that he did not plan to go down as quietly as he did against the New Orleans Pelicans a year ago.
While the Thunder was hardly a victim of a first-round knockout, it never truly returned the favor and, as a result, is left dealing with its own baggage from past postseason failures.
Oklahoma City has lost in the first round twice in a row since Kevin Durant’s 2016 departure, undone both times by poor shooting, uneven offensive flow and limited scoring balance. Those old habits popped up again in Portland, as did an old friend: Blazers center Enes Kanter rampaged against his former team for 20 points and 18 rebounds.
“He was the MVP of the game,” Lillard said. “He had a huge presence down the stretch.”
By now, seeing the Thunder haphazardly spray bricked jumpers in the postseason is no surprise. The book has long been out on Russell Westbrook and Co.: Force them to beat you from the perimeter, and they just might beat themselves.
Westbrook, a career 30 percent outside shooter in the playoffs, missed all four of his three-point attempts and both of his midrange looks. Paul George, playing through shoulder pain that left him questionable for Game 1, hit just 8 of 24 shots and 4 of 15 three-pointers. As a team, the Thunder shot an abysmal 5 for 33 from beyond the arc, a performance that recalled similar duds against the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz in the previous two postseasons.
“I thought we got great looks all night,” George said. “For me, it’s just rhythm. Four days ago, I couldn’t even lift my shoulder. Fast-forward to today; it’s the first day I shot the ball. Tomorrow I’ll get shots up and get back in tune, and we’ll try to get the same shots we got tonight.”
George’s questionable health is alarming, given the Thunder’s dependence on his scoring, but it is built to withstand a certain degree of perimeter futility. After all, Oklahoma City won 49 games despite ranking 22nd in three-point percentage and 17th in overall offense. But the Thunder can’t allow Kanter to win his matchup with Steven Adams inside.
Kanter, who opened the season riding the pine for the New York Knicks and was called to greater duty after a devastating leg injury to Jusuf Nurkic, entered the series as Portland’s most obvious weak link. His track record as a below-average defender is well established, and opponents regularly forced him off the court in the playoffs because of his limited foot speed and marginal shot-blocking ability.
Oklahoma City knows that better than anyone: Coach Billy Donovan was caught on camera seemingly saying “Can’t play Kanter” to an assistant during the playoffs two years ago, and Kanter’s playing time quickly dried up in both the 2016 and 2017 postseason.
Yet the Thunder on Sunday failed to exploit Kanter in any of the obvious ways. It didn’t snipe over him when he switched out near the three-point line. It didn’t attack him aggressively to put him in foul trouble; he committed just one in 34 minutes. And although they had some success feeding Adams near the hoop, Oklahoma City’s big men were unable to neutralize Kanter’s impact on the glass.
Somehow, a 26-year-old Knicks castoff whose name has long been synonymous with poor plus-minus showings managed to post a plus-15, the best mark of Game 1.
“I was on the worst team in the league, and I wasn’t even playing because they thought I was too old,” Kanter said. “It was so frustrating because I just wanted to go out there and win. A couple of days ago, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘I’m blessed to be here.’ It definitely feels amazing.”
Despite being the Western Conference’s No. 6 seed, the Thunder entered the series as the betting favorite because it swept the regular season series 4-0 and Nurkic is absent. Its Game 1 performance was lacking but not quite worthy of panic: Westbrook and George can play better, the defense was largely effective, and the Blazers’ hot outside shooting is bound to regress.
Most of all, there was a too-good-to-be-true quality to Kanter’s game-changing impact. Going forward, Donovan must mercilessly pick on his former player, channeling the lessons of postseason shortcomings to dole out the same pain his team has endured. Oklahoma City’s path to winning this series runs directly though Portland’s depleted rotation at center.
If the Thunder can’t make the Blazers pay for playing Kanter, Oklahoma City deserves to go home early again.