Nothing fuels playoff basketball quite like an old-fashioned clash of pride, which is why the Portland Trail Blazers vs. the Oklahoma City Thunder is the best show going.
In one corner: Russell Westbrook, an unrelenting former MVP whose standing among the NBA’s top players is at risk if the Thunder goes home early for the third straight season. In the other: Damian Lillard, a fearless all-NBA selection whose stock will soar to new heights if he can carry the Blazers out of the first round for the third time in six years.
The point guards are small-market, one-team franchise guys, determined leaders whose organizations exist and operate in their mold. Those similarities make them natural rivals, competing for the same postseason success, individual accolades, fame and sneaker sales. Best of all is the timing: Westbrook’s slight slippage and Lillard’s steady rise have their career arcs intersecting at the perfect moment.
After he was outplayed in a pair of losses in Portland, Westbrook’s pride was clearly wounded. He took “full responsibility” for his “unacceptable” play following Game 2, then proceeded to crank up the intensity during Oklahoma City’s 120-108 home victory Friday in Game 3.
Westbrook went out of his way to punish Lillard, to volley back some of the indignity he had experienced in the Rose City. Lillard flexed before burying a deep three-pointer in Game 2, and Westbrook had no intention of letting the slight go. In Game 3, he spiked one of Lillard’s shots to the court, gestured in Lillard’s direction as he buried a late three-pointer, and capped a pair of jumpers over Lillard with his “rock the baby” celebration and shouts of “Too small!”
“Man of his words,” Thunder forward Paul George said of Westbrook’s big response. “He led. We got behind him. He put us on his back.”
In years past, Westbrook’s intimidation act might have immediately shifted the terms of his matchup — and the series as a whole. But that was then. Lillard was entirely unmoved, responding to one of Westbrook’s celebrations by reeling off 25 third-quarter points and keying a Blazers comeback that kept the game close until the final minutes. Afterward, he told reporters that he hadn’t seen Westbrook’s attempts to diminish him.
Not surprisingly, Westbrook’s stubbornness and desperation in the face of a possible 3-0 series hole were contagious. With the win essentially in hand, Thunder guard Dennis Schroder walked past Lillard and tapped his wrist in a mocking reference to the signature “Dame Time” celebration. And in the game’s closing seconds, George elected to dunk rather than dribble out the clock with a 12-point lead. One final slight to cap off the evening.
“I did see it,” Lillard said of Schroder’s ploy. “I thought it was kind of funny that he waited so late in the game, when he knew the game was decided, to do it. He also hadn’t pulled that out the first two games. I thought that was interesting.”
George’s minor violation of basketball ethics (the dunk actually occurred with no time left) wasn’t lost on him, either.
“Typically, people say, you don’t do stuff like that,” Lillard said with a light touch of passive-aggressiveness. “Honestly, I really couldn’t care less. The game had been decided. If that’s something they needed to do to make themselves feel more dominant or feel better, then so be it.”
Game 3 was decided by Westbrook’s improved play but also by the arrival of Oklahoma City’s supporting cast for the first time in the series. Schroder scored 17 points off the bench, forward Jerami Grant tallied a playoff-career-high 18 points, and guard Terrance Ferguson chipped in three three-pointers. The Thunder needed all hands on deck: Lillard’s 32 points nearly matched Westbrook’s game-high 33.
“We’re going to continue to trust them and make the right play,” Westbrook said. “If guys are open, you’ve got to continue to make the right play and trust your teammates.”
Both teams will enter Sunday night’s Game 4 with raw feelings and looming questions. Lillard needs more help from his supporting cast on the road, and the Blazers will need to avoid the severe foul trouble they encountered in Game 3. Westbrook must continue to shoot the ball efficiently; the Thunder’s hot perimeter shooting Friday is subject to regression.
The minor details and finer points in this series, though, seem less important than the dueling headliners. Blazers vs. Thunder will hinge on whether Lillard outlasts Westbrook, or the other way around.
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