Blazers take Game 1, Paul George’s shoulder could decide series
The Oklahoma City Thunder are in trouble. Yes, Russell Westbrook and Paul George lost Sunday’s Game 1 matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, 104-99. Portland lead by as many as 19 points at one point in the first half, but the Thunder rallied with solid play as they capitalized on Blazers turnovers.
But all that is in the background for now. At this point, after seeing George play with an injured shoulder — or shoulders? — it appears Oklahoma City has bigger issues.
George’s alter ego “Playoff P” was nowhere to be found despite the Thunder star logging 26 points, 10 rebounds, and four steals. That stat line was not indicative of how George played, particularly as a shooter. He shot just 26.6% from 3-point range, and was easily susceptible to blocks from the likes of Portland defenders like Maurice Harkless. George was inert, predictable, and unable to overpower his opponents the way he has as an MVP candidate this season.
News from Moda Center after the game from George himself wasn’t exactly encouraging, either. In fact, George said that he couldn’t even lift his shoulder four days ago.
Thunder's Paul George (8-24 shooting, 4-15 from deep in Game 1 loss to Blazers) on his health & shoulder injury: "For me, it's just rhythm. Four days ago, I couldn't even lift my shoulder. Fast forward to today, that's the first day I shot the ball." pic.twitter.com/9M3dwrmtu2— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 14, 2019
The game still ended up being just a five-point affair, with Portland running out of gas and playing sloppy down stretch. Damian Lillard was the Blazers’ saving grace, adding 14 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter alone.
It’s true that the first game of the playoffs can often belie the true nature of the coming battle between two teams. There’s usually no need to overreact to a single result as coaching staffs make huge adjustments from game-to-game.
But it could be different for Oklahoma City.
Sunday’s game against the Blazers showed that Portland has enough firepower, particularly with their rotational players like Enes Kanter and Seth Curry. Former New York Knicks big man had a monster game, scoring 20 points with 18 rebounds, two assists, and two blocks.
You can also expect Rodney Hood, Evan Turner, and Harkless to make a bigger impact as the series goes along.
So where does that leave the Thunder?
In a word: exasperated.
That much was was clear after the game when Westbrook gave two consecutive “next question” responses to a reporter from Oklahoma City.
Portland has been a solid story all season, and they are more of a team-oriented squad now than they have been since 2015. Damian Lillard is a top five MVP candidate, and the fact that McCollum has come back from a knee muscle strain this soon is an indicator of how serious this team is about getting out of the first round.
The Blazers have been swept the last two postseasons in a row, and it was immediately evident in the first quarter on Sunday that they were not looking to continue that streak. Portland was everywhere, diving for loose balls, jumping into passing lanes, and giving maximum effort that petered the edge of control.
Westbrook played the way that Westbrook does. He notched another triple-double against the Blazers in Game 1, and the rest of the Thunder contributed in kind. But this version of Oklahoma City isn’t strong enough to beat Portland when they are firing on all cylinders, particularly as the Blazers have found a bit of depth and momentum heading into the postseason.
Blazers got a win at home and the Thunder continued their streak of losing the first game of the first round. Game 2 is on Tuesday, again in Northeast Portland, and the Blazers will have an eye on grabbing a serious lead before switching locations for Game 3.
Portland will be digesting tape and analyzing the Thunder’s tendencies. Oklahoma City knows that, for all their own study, their season could hinge on the treatment George can receive over the next 48 hours.
For now, the biggest question in Portland will be about George’s shoulders, and whether he can find some explosiveness to match the Blazers’ talent in Game 2.