Until Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers hadn’t won a playoff game since May 7, 2016.
It clearly bothered them, as it should have. They may have said all the right things when asked about the unfortunate streak, but the Blazers – Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in particular – desperately needed to get that monkey off their back.
So when Lillard opened the game with a 29 foot 3-pointer on the Blazers’ first possession, starting a first-quarter barrage from he and McCollum, it was clear they were coming out guns blazing.
It was tough and gritty, but they got it done. They looked at Russell Westbrook and Paul George and said “not today.”
1-0 Blazers, and the city of Portland is buzzing like it hasn’t since 2016.
The two teams turn around and face each other again Tuesday night at Moda Center, and the Blazers have a chance to take a substantial 2-0 series lead. Adjustments will need to be made on both sides. Despite the Thunder shooting only 5-33 from the 3-point line, they got a long string of uncontested looks. They’re not a good 3-point shooting team, but if left open again, they’ll knock them down at a higher than 15 percent rate.
Of course, Oklahoma City’s best 3-point shooter is Paul George, and he’s seemingly covered head-to-toe in kinesio tape as he deals with his ailing shoulder. Since the All-Star break, George is only shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc on more than 10 attempts per game. Outside of George and Jerami Grant, the Thunder don’t have any true knock-down long-range shooters. That means that the Blazers are going to need to lock down on the perimeter and make things difficult for a poor shooting Thunder team.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan, who famously said “can’t play Kanter” during his team’s playoff series against the Houston Rockets, failed to take advantage of Kanter’s defensive struggles. He had lumbering center Steven Adams go right at Kanter, but that doesn’t play into his weaknesses as a defender. Kanter does fine in one-on-one post play, and against Adams he was just another 7′ 270 pound center. Yes Adams shot a solid 8/14 from the floor, but if Oklahoma City is relying on Adams in the post, they’ve already lost.
Where Kanter struggles is against the pick and roll, where he needs to move his feet and can get stuck out on an island. The Thunder didn’t do nearly enough of forcing Kanter to make decisions on defense. Kanter made them pay, with 20 points, 18 rebounds, and two blocked shots. If he’s allowed to continue to play at that level, the Blazers win this series.
For Portland, despite the torrid start to the game, they struggled offensively for the middle two quarters. While all of the talk is about how Oklahoma City hung with Portland and shot themselves out of the game, the Blazers played a relatively poor game and still got the win. The Blazers do a great job on the boards and take care of the ball. They allowed 18 offensive rebounds and had 18 turnovers – many of them unforced – and still won. Stotts will be emphasizing ball protection and limiting the Thunder to single possessions on offense.
Looking at the advanced numbers, the Blazers’ odds to win this series just jumped to 56 percent after their game-one victory.
But most importantly the Blazers have belief now. 10 straight playoff losses? That’s now in the past.
Getting swept by the Thunder in the regular season? Also now in the past.
That’s not something that can be quantified. Right now, the Blazers simply need three wins in the next six games to advance. And with their series-opening win in front of the Blazers faithful, they know they can get it done. And sometimes, in a season where they were projected to win 42 games and, after smashing that projection, get beat by the Thunder, that’s all a team needs.
Game two is Tuesday night at 7:30. It’s going to be rocking at Moda. If the Blazers can take care of business again, that energy will spread to the entire city.