OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder head to Portland down 3-1. Another poor Paul George shooting performance and an awfully inefficient night from Russell Westbrook.
After their emphatic win Friday night capped off by a George dunk following the buzzer, Damian Lillard and the Trailblazers weren’t phased. In fact, the only thing that bothered Lillard was the timing. Specifically during a sequence late in the game where Dennis Schröder mocked Lillard’s “Dame Time” hand gesture.
“It was kind of funny,” Lillard said after Game 3. “He waited so late in the game when he knew the game was decided to do it. He hadn’t pulled that out the first two games.”
On Sunday, time was on Dame’s side.
Lillard started the game 0-for-6, while the Thunder enjoyed control of the game leading by seven. Westbrook and George were a combined 8-of-19 (3-of-6 from deep) with 22 points, six rebounds and seven assists midway through the second quarter. Dame and C.J. McCollum were on the opposite side of the spectrum with only one made three of their seven combined attempts and 11 points total. OKC’s defense was hounding Portland’s backcourt duo into a near shutout.
Lillard announced himself suddenly at the 1:13 mark of the second quarter. The Blazers finished on an 11-0 run, eight of those points coming from Lillard. The Thunder were never able to recover, losing 111-98.
The 11-0 run ballooned to 23-5 in the third. Then to 34-11. Lillard and the Blazers were on one and the entire arena knew it. 18,000 fans clad in Thunder blue could only sit and watch as Lillard displayed the full arsenal of his weaponry. Total control had been lost for OKC. No hope of an antidote in sight — not George, who finished 8-of-21, or Westbrook.
“We are going to play hard,” Lillard said Sunday night. “We are going to keep doing what we do to come out on top.”
With this series four games deep, a few things have become clear. One of them has been Portland’s ability to not play the Thunder’s game. No, not simply keeping them off the fast break or holding George to poor shooting nights, but to not get into the emotional roller coaster trap OKC can thrive on.
The Thunder were loud and chippy in Game 3. Portland decided not to participate in those antics in Game 4.
“After Game 3 it was like we were in the locker room saying they lived at the free throw line,” Lillard added. “Game 4 we are not talking to nobody but ourselves. Referees can call it how hey want to call it, we are just going to worry about ourselves.”
McCollum, who buried the Thunder late with great plays on both ends, added to the Blazer’s mentality.
“Multiple times we had discussions about not saying anything to anyone,” McCollum said. “If they do not have a black or 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.”
This game was a microcosm of the Thunder’s season. You see the potential when George and Westbrook are hitting shots. You see the greatness when their role guys like Terrance Ferguson or Jerami Grant are draining their open looks. Oklahoma City fed off their energetic crowd and looked the part of a team looking to turn the tide in a seven-game series.
But once that energy got sucked into the vacuum of Lillard’s shot-making greatness, there was little the Thunder could rely on.
Westbrook was not going to save OKC with a mid-range attack — he was 0-for-7 with 1 point in the second half. George has been a shell of his MVP-caliber self since March and did little to change that on Sunday. Steven Adams is not a guy you can depend on to win you games with his offense. Grant and Ferguson — more so Ferguson — are just not ready for the heavy burden that comes with consistently producing in the postseason.
So what does Oklahoma City do? They try and get their opponent into a hurricane of energy and chaos. If you enter the Thunder storm where Westbrook is playing downhill, George is creating havoc on defense — all this while Oklahoma City lets you know about it physically and verbally — you find yourself in a situation playing from behind.
Portland understood that Friday and they used it to their advantage on Sunday. There was no barking back and forth after Westbrook taunts. No trash talk following a steal and fast break dunk. Just a calm and controlled level of play for the Blazers.
A Westbrook-led team has been unable to show it can do that in these past two years. The thing that makes the 2016-17 MVP so great is his chaotic energy. It is also the thing that can doom him and the team. When Westbrook can follow his Jordan brand mantra of own(ing) the chaos the Thunder have success. When the chaos becomes too much to control, a lead can turn into a deficit in the blink of an eye.
After four games, two teams remain locked in a contract of postseason play. Tuesday night will either end the Oklahoma City’s season or it could be a sign of hope. These two teams have very different philosophies and vibes. One chaos, the other calm-control.
Calm-control is up 3-1.