OKLAHOMA CITY – It was a business trip for the Portland Trail Blazers. And business is good.
Portland’s approach to Sunday night’s pivotal Game 4 against the Oklahoma City Thunder was a textbook approach for a team that was harassed and defeated by the home team just two days previously,
“We were very businesslike,” Portland Coach Terry Stotts said after his team's 111-98 victory put it one win away from winning the series. “We took care of our business. I think, as I told the team, we have to be concerned about us, and I thought we played the way we needed to play. And there really wasn’t a lot — as we talked about yesterday – any of the peripheral stuff. I liked the way we approached the game throughout.”
But all of that started at the end of the regular season, when Jusuf Nurkic was lost to a broken leg and C J McCollum went down with a knee injury.
At that point, Lillard took command of the situation and went about the job of building confidence and trust in his teammates.
Instead of taking on more of a burden, he got more teammates involved and allowed them to help him carry the load.
The results have been spectacular and it’s the reason that, for all of Lillard’s on-court talents, his leadership may be his most valuable asset.
“We were put in a position where we had to lean on each other and trust each other,”Lillard said. “And it was great for our team. We had to lean on each other and develop trust and the confidence we needed to have with each other. Our team was together and really believing in each other. So coming into this series, this isn’t anything new for us.
“We’ve just been getting the job done. Like Coach said, we had a businesslike mentality.
“It was the first time, that after Game 3, we were in the locker room saying ‘They lived at the free-throw line,’ and all this stuff.
“But in Game 4 we’re not talking to anybody but ourselves. Referees can call it how they want to call it, We’re just going to worry about ourselves. We’re going to play hard and stay together. And when their crowd gets into it, we’re just going to keep on doing what we do and come out on top.
“I was proud that we were able to stick to that and actually get it done. And a lot of that was because of what we’d been through in the regular season and how we came together.”
The Thunder got off to a solid start but the Blazers led by two after the first quarter. Portland trailed by seven points with two and a half minutes left in the first half but finished with an 11-0 run.
That was significant because Lillard was just 2-8 from the field and had only seven points at half.
“I loved it,” Lillard said. “Anytime we can be on the road, playing against a really good team, and not playing well and not having been scoring the ball and we have a lead that deep into a game, that’s a great situation.
“All I need to do is see it go in one time. And that can turn into three or four or five.”
Of course he saw plenty of them go in during the second half, as he finished with 24 points and 4-8 from three-point range.
CJ McCollum was solid all night alongside Lillard,. He was 5-9 on threes and scored 27 and hit a couple of big triples early in the fourth quarter when Lillard was getting a rest.
The second half belong to the Blazers at both ends of the court. Russell Westbrook was held to one point and three assists after halftime and the Thunder ended up being outscored in the paint 36-22. OKC made only 11 of its 30 shots in that area.
McCollum was asked about the development of his team this season.
“I think we’re a lot more mature,” McCollum said. “We understood what we wanted to accomplish tonight. We had multiple discussions about it. If they don’t have a black and gray jersey on, don’t talk to them. Talk to our team only. Don’t talk to the refs.
“Execute our game plan and let’s get out of here with a win.”
McCollum doesn’t mince words when he talks about his team’s motivation.
“We got swept last year,” he said. “Everybody talked about it. We were on TV every day. They talked about the sweep, they talked about me getting traded, they talked about how we (Lillard and McCollum) can’t win together.”
McCollum was asked about the challenge they might face in Tuesday’s Game 5 in Moda Center vs. the Thunder.
“We’re not worried about the Thunder,” he said. “We’re worried about the Blazers. We have to execute our game plan. We have to stick to what we’ve been doing, turn it up a notch. We’re going to be at home, we’re going to be facing a desperate team that is facing elimination.
“We really just need to focus on ourselves, focus on how we can execute and how we can knock down shots, how we can empower each other. And then defensively, stay locked in.”
In other words, just stick to business.