The Portland Trail Blazers are leading the Oklahoma City Thunder 2-0 in their first-round series and everything looks rosy in the Rose City. But the series now switches to Oklahoma and Chesapeake Energy Arena is no easy place to play.
The Blazers find themselves in an interesting position, particularly given the late-season injury to Jusuf Nurkic. That anybody predicted they would be up on the Thunder at this juncture would be a stretch, even given Paul George's shoulder injury.
Over the first two games the Blazers have looked like the better team, and by a significant margin. With that, it’s time to look at three things that have gone right for Portland, and three things that they’ll need to watch out for moving forward.
Damian Lillard’s defense
Damian Lillard has been incredible on the defensive side of the ball in this series, agitating Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schroder. The Blazers PG posted a regular season defensive rating of 112, but he’s ratched that down to just 95.
Lillard has been particularly adept at using his left hand to swat at the ball, which is part timing and part film study. It’s led to several outright steals, not to mention poke aways and swipes down on the basketball during drives.
If Portland’s going to continue to be this impressive on defense, Lillard is going to have to be a part of it. Luckily he’s been whacking away possessions, blocking shots, and mucking up passing lanes during the first two games.
Lillard’s defense is a part of a bigger picture that folks haven’t really talked about yet. Terry Stotts and his staff appear to have put together a clear defensive plan around one tenant: unless it’s Paul George, don’t jump on any Thunder wing’s 3-point attempt.
Portland has taken to actively rushing to the 3-point line against OKC — Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, and all the Blazers backcourt have been seen sprinting hard on close outs — but when defenders arrive they’ve taken to getting low and protecting against the dribble drive.
It’s part of the reason the Thunder have shot just 16.4 percent from the arc, far and away the worst mark of any team in the playoffs. George’s shoulder has played its part as well, but make no bones about it — the Blazers have a gameplan, and it’s working.
The Blazers have been the second-best team in these playoffs in terms of 3-point shooting percentage, and are fifth in made 3-point attempts. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have led the way in that respect, and Seth Curry has provided quite the spark off the bench.
The Thunder just haven't been able to contain Portland's long-range gunners, and both Lillard and McCollum have put up shots from deeper than perhaps OKC would have predicted.
Oklahoma City has declined in large part to double-team either player, much the way teams have in the postseasons past. That's allowed some more freedom for Lillard and McCollum, and the Blazers have made the Thunder pay dearly.
Oklahoma City doesn't have the confidence in its roster to double-team the Blazer guards and still contain the rest of the Portland offense effectively. That's played right into the Blazers’ hands, and should continue unless Billy Donovan somehow comes up with a more athletic forward who can switch on to either guard.
After Game 1 Russell Westbrook appeared to be mopey. After Game 2, Westbrook was energized.
The former NBA MVP said that he took full responsibility for the loss in Game 2, and it seems like he isn't going to let things stand as they head back onto his home court.
Oklahoma City hasn't used its home court advantage quite the way that seems like Portland or Denver have this season, but Westbrook is certainly more dangerous. He’s a better scorer at home, and shoots 1.3 additional attempts at the free-throw line per game at Chesapeake than away. That disparity could play a difference in a tight playoff game.
And remember, Westbrook and Lillard have a history. The Thunder guard once trash-talked Lillard by telling him that he’d “been busting that ass for years”. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and Westbrook is poised to go off like a bomb.
Paul George’s shoulder
George didn't exactly have a poor game to start the series, but he did look susceptible to blocks by Moe Harkless. Put simply, he wasn't quite himself.
George has shot no better than 28.6 percent from the 3-point line in any game this series, and that's been a huge issue for Oklahoma City. George is by far and away the most important 3-point shooter the Thunder have on their roster, both in terms of made threes and 3-point percentage, and he has more than twice the made threes than the next closest Thunder in Dennis Schroder.
That brings us to George's shoulder. The Thunder star looked much better in Game 2, and if he's ready to play at a higher level and feeling less pain, that could spell trouble for the Blazers. If George comes back as a relevant 3-point shooter, that will change the geometry of the floor for Portland's defense in a major way.
Evan Turner as a non-factor
Turner did not have a good March but he came on strong in the five games Portland played in the month of April. As the season came to a close, it seemed that Turner would play a large role in the playoffs as one of the Blazers’ most important players and as the leader of the second unit.
But Turner has played sparingly, logging just 16 minutes in Game 1 and 11 minutes in Game 2. He hasn't made an impact in the box score, and his plus-minus has been nominal.
Portland is firing on all cylinders right now — on both sides of the ball — but the strength of this team outside of Damian Lillard has been its bench. Turner is one of the big reasons for that and when the Blazers eventually face adversity against this Oklahoma City team, they're going to need him to show up and journey forward.