During the second quarter of last night’s game, the Portland Trail Blazers took the Oklahoma City Thunder’s best punch. In recent playoff series, Portland would have wilted under the pressure; we’ve seen it over and over in the last few years.
But this team feels different. They’re playing lock-down defense. They’re hitting clutch shots. The players are walking with swagger.
And they have a 2-0 series lead in the match-up that many fans hoped to avoid. Portland has all the momentum, and Oklahoma City looks completely out of sorts. Is there any way the Thunder can come back?
If history is any indication, probably not. Only 20 teams in 282 seven-game playoff series have ever come back to win. That’s seven percent, for those that don’t have a calculator handy. The Blazers have led a series 2-0 14 times in franchise history. Their record? You guessed it. 14-0.
The Thunder do have a few things potentially going for them, and if they’re going to stand a chance, they can’t wait any longer. It all starts with their star power. Paul George and Russell Westbrook are both capable of turning the tide of a game at any time. And good thing for them, because Billy Donovan’s offensive system leaves a lot to be desired. But George (who has battled a bad shoulder) and Westbrook (ankle, hand) need to find a way to get back to their dominant selves.
That’s no easy task against Portland’s defense. When defense anchor Jusuf Nurkic went down with a broken leg last month, it was assumed that Portland would struggle to get stops. But so far in the series, that hasn’t been the case. The Thunder averaged more than 114 points per game during the regular season. Through two games against Portland? Fewer than 97. Portland has swarmed all over George and Westbrook and found success with active hands, stripping OKC ball-handlers repeatedly to get out in transition – a new wrinkle for the Blazers.
The Thunder have to be glad to be returning home. The Moda Center crowd gave the Blazers a massive boost through the first two games, and OKC will be looking for “Loud City” to do the same. But they’ll need to adapt their game plan, something that coach Billy Donovan hasn’t seemed capable of so far. Sure, part of it is simply making shots – the Thunder are 10/61 from the 3-point line in the series. But they’re among the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA, especially when Paul George is removed from the equation. But Donovan has to find a way to take advantage of matchup advantages.
Those start, and possibly end, with Blazer center Enes Kanter’s defensive deficiencies.
Donovan has gone directly at Kanter with hulking center Steven Adams, but that’s not the right approach. Kanter can play adequate post defense, but he gets lost in pick-and-roll coverage. Oklahoma City ran a few P&R’s for Westbrook and Adams in Game 2, but not nearly enough. Instead, they devolved into one-on-one play, a sort of anti-offensive set. If the 3-point shot isn’t falling Oklahoma City, and it often isn’t, they’ve got to get easy buckets at the rim. Though two games, they haven’t done enough of that.
Seven percent odds, historically speaking. But Oklahoma City isn’t thinking about that. They’re locked in on game 3 on Friday night.
And if they don’t figure things out by then?
No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the NBA.
Game 3 is Friday at 6:30 from Oklahoma City.