Blazers lock OKC down on defense to take 2-0 lead

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Damian Lillard could not be stopped. CJ McCollum could not be stopped. Moe Harkless could not be stopped. Most of the Portland Trail Blazers bench could not be stopped. Now, after a Blazers win in Game 2, 114-94, we’re left wondering if the Oklahoma City offense can get going enough to avoid a third consecutive loss down 2-0.

As things got going Tuesday night in Portland, it was looking like it could be a more competitive matchup with Paul George saying his shoulder was feeling much better. George was more confident, and in fact, the Thunder led in the first quarter.

But things quickly went downhill from there.

Portland tied it with a McCollum 3-pointer just as time expired heading into halftime. That seemed to spark the Blazers, who came out hot on both sides of the ball in the third quarter.

Portland put the clamps on the defensive side of the ball to start the third, allowing just 21 points and then 19 points in fourth quarter.

Naturally, things got a little testy as the game wore on. Double technicals were issued to Zach Collins and Markieff Morris earlier in the game, and Lillard and Steven Adams got to jaw jacking after the Thunder big man laid the Blazers guard out on a screen.

This is how it’s gone between the Thunder and Portland this year. Technical fouls have been issued, guys have been in each other’s faces, and emotions have run high. For Blazers fans, Tuesday night’s game was not just a show of their depth, but their willingness to not back down from a fight.

Honestly? It was impressive.

After covering this team for the better part of this decade, it has always been a question whether Blazers good meter out there play when opponents toughened up on them. This version of Portland has played more as a team, but the Thunder are dishing out the shots needed to Test the mettle of the Blazers role players.

Oklahoma City, despite their offensive inequities, pushed the Blazers rotational players to the limit in Game 2. Portland’s best asset all season long outside of Lillard has been its depth, and although guys like Seth Curry, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, and Zach Collins didn’t pop on the box score, their impact was immeasurable.

Like we talked about after Game 1, the Thunder appear to be in trouble. It started with the uneasiness of George’s shoulder. Now with George feeling and playing better, OKC continues to look out matched. And although the Oklahoma City star was more efficient and confident in Game 2, Harkless again got an early block on George.

In short, things don’t look great for the Thunder.

So where does the series go from here? The Blazers took care of business at home at Moda, and things move to Oklahoma City. Still, there is some real questions about whether the Thunder can muster up enough offense to beat this Blazers team.

OKC is shooting just 16.4 percent combined from 3-point range during the series. The Thunder have three times more turnovers than made threes in this series, and it’s not immediately clear where they will be able to make that up.

George leads the team with more than double the made 3-pointers than the next closest teammate in Dennis Schroder. The problem is that George is shooting just 27 percent from deep, and his teammates aren’t helping.

Meanwhile Portland has been outstanding from the 3-point range, shooting 42 percent for the series. Lillard and McCollum combined to go 7-of-15 on Tuesday, and at one point Lillard was daring Westbrook to shoot. After one deep made three over the former MVP, Lillard turned to the crowd and said, “Bombs away!”

In Game 2 it was obvious that Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan had a decided to use pace to disrupt Portland’s defense, running on every made basket. It threw the Blazers off, but only for a quarter. The Thunder are going to need a strategy more dynamic than that as they try to beat the Blazers back at Chesapeake for Game 3 on Friday.

For a team with a player who likes to barrel through opponents, the Oklahoma City Thunder found out on Tuesday night that the Blazers aren’t likely to pull back on the reins when they get some momentum going. Lillard looks unstoppable, McCollum was on fire, and Portland’s bench survived every gutpunch.

The Thunder are playing right into Portland’s plan, and they’re flailing as they head home down two games in the first round.

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Portland’s win was about Enes Kanter not Jennifer

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The NBA playoffs are underway and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) It was less Jennifer’s motivation and more Enes Kanter that got Portland Game 1 win. With Jusuf Nurkic out, a lot of pundits (myself included) picked Oklahoma City to knock off Portland in the West’s 3/6 first-round playoff matchup. Probably handily.

That’s not what happened in Game 1 Sunday, a 104-99 Trail Blazers win at home. That got Royce Young of ESPN and others talking about the preseason viral Tweet from Portland’s CJ McCollum about a playoff win. It all started when McCollum said wouldn’t do something like join the Warriors to chase rings.

Portland got that win Sunday. On Twitter, Jennifer took credit.

It was less Jennifer and more Enes Kanter — and some dreadful shooting from Paul George and the Thunder — that got Portland the victory at home.

Kanter — the former Thunder big man, about whom coach Billy Donovan was caught on video saying “can’t play Kanter” to an assistant during the playoffs two years ago — had 20 points and 18 rebounds in the Blazers win, filling Nurkic’s shoes well for a night. What Donovan was talking about two years ago was Kanter’s poor pick-and-roll defense, but the Thunder as a team did a poor job trying to exploit that. It allowed Terry Stotts to play Kanter all he wanted, and Kanter was fantastic on offense.

Portland also got 30 points from Damian Lillard — including a tone-setting three to start the game — and 24 from McCollum.

Defensively, Portland followed the book on the Thunder: Pack the paint, cut off drives for Russell Westbrook and Paul George as much as possible, and dare OKC to beat you from the perimeter with jumpers. The Thunder were 10-of-46 (21.7 percent) outside the paint and 5-of-33 from three. Oklahoma City relied on Paul George’s shooting and scoring to provide balance this season, but coming off of — or still bothered by — a sore shoulder, he was 4-of-15 from three and said after the game it was a rhythm thing. We’ll see if he has better rhythm in Game 2.

Westbrook had a triple-double of 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, but was 1-of-9 shooting outside three feet of the rim.

Game 1 does not decide a series, this is far from over for the Thunder. However, the Trail Blazers just got a boost of confidence. If Kanter can play this well, not get exposed on defense, and be out on the court for 30ish productive minutes a night, Portland’s chances in this series go way up. The Thunder also just need to hit some jumpers.

2) Houston wins Game 1 with physical defense against Utah. And some James Harden. Going into the 4/5 playoff series in the West, I had three questions about the Utah Jazz: Would they be able to slow James Harden and not let him take over games? Could they keep Chris Paul from carving them up like he did when these teams met in the playoffs a year ago? Could they score enough against Houston to keep up?

The answer to the third question is no, they could not score enough in Game 1, a 122-90 Houston win. It rendered the answers to the other two questions moot.

The Rockets were physical on defense, taking away the cuts and some of the drives the system-offense Jazz are used to getting. The result was a Jazz team that shot 39 percent overall and had an offensive rating of 89.1, well below a point per possession in this one. Donovan Mitchell, the primary (some would say only) elite shot creator on the Jazz saw multiple bodies every time he touched the ball and tried to make a play. Defenders collapsed on Mitchell (and Joe Ingles, Ricky Rubio, or anyone else driving the lane) and bet the Jazz could not find the open shooter and knock down the shot. Houston bet right in Game 1.

Defensively, Utah went to the defensive strategy Milwaukee used effectively on Harden — sit on his left shoulder, force him right, try to take away the step-back three and funnel his drives to the big man waiting in the paint (Rudy Gobert in this case). The problem wasn’t that Harden had 29 points (he needed 26 shots to get there), it was the 10-assists — given a free run to the basket Harden became a playmaker and set up teammates to get the Houston offense clicking.

Utah has some adjustments to make before Game 2, or they are going to head home for Game 3 in a big hole.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo dunked almost from the free throw line… and that’s pretty much all you need to see from that game. With Blake Griffin sidelined (maybe for the series) with a sore knee, Detroit was completely overwhelmed by Milwaukee in Game 1. It was a 121-86 thrashing. Nothing to see here, just move along…

Well, except this: Giannis Antetokounmpo dunking from almost the free throw line.

The Greek Freak finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds.

Pressure’s on: Five players who must dominate for their teams to make playoff runs

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Starting with our first team in the run-down gym at a local park, our coaches told us “basketball is a team sport.” It’s not about the individual, it’s about the team. The whole “there’s no I in team” cliche.

Then we start playing and realize quickly individuals matter. For some teams, they matter A LOT.

Enter the 2019 NBA playoffs. The best team will win, but for some of these teams to make a deep playoff run it will require one of their individuals being dominant. These are teams either built around, or that just require, this one player to be a star and then some.

Here are five players who have to step up and dominate for their teams to make playoff runs.

1) James Harden, Houston Rockets. The step-back three. The drives that lead to floaters or fouls. Collapse on him and he finds the open man at the arc, or the big man rolling to the rim for the lob. James Harden has become an unstoppable offensive force.

He has to be. The man averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists and 6.6 rebounds a game this season. He has the highest usage rate in the league (40.5, the only higher one ever was Russell Westbrook his MVP year). Harden had a 32-game streak of at least 30 points. He had to do all of it. When Harden started that scoring streak the Rockets were below .500 and the 13 seed in the West. He carried them to the four seed, and since the All-Star break the Rockets have been as good as any team in the NBA.

Houston has a brutal road ahead: Utah and it’s league-best defense since the All-Star break, with Rudy Gobert in the paint, is first. Win that series (the Rockets are favorites) and the reward is the Golden State Warriors. Harden has carried the Rockets this far, we’ll see if he can carry them up that Everest of a mountain. Just don’t doubt if The Beard is capable.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. We all talk about how Houston’s offense is built around Harden, but the same is true of Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo. The style is just different. The Bucks put four shooters around him to spread the floor and open it up, but that only works because Antetokounmpo is unstoppable one-on-one. That forces help, he makes a pass, the ball swings and the Bucks get a clean look at a three.

It has dominated in the regular season, the Bucks had the fourth best offense in the NBA.

The pressure is now on Antetokounmpo to carry that offense into the postseason. There he will see new challenges and looks defensively — expect some teams to try zones — and the Greek Freak is going to have to adapt. He is going to have to get his buckets, and more importantly keep drawing so much attention that Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and the rest keep getting good looks.

Plus, he needs to keep making defensive plays. The Bucks are without Malcolm Brogdon for at least the start of the playoffs, without him as a perimeter defender more pressure will fall on Antetokounmpo and Lopez to protect the paint.

3) Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers. Lillard is already Mr. Everything to the Portland offense, a top-20 usage rate of 29.3 and the team’s leading scorer and assist man at 25.8 points and 6.9 dimes a game. There was already a lot of pressure on him.

Then Jusuf Nurkic had his freak leg injury. Portland’s second-best player this season (third if you want to argue CJ McCollum was better, but I think it was Nurkic) was gone. Lillard’s outlet under pressure was gone. McCollum, the other scorer Portland can count on, is back in the rotation but missed time with a plantar fascia issue. It puts even more on Lillard, who will see a lot of traps (just like last playoffs), and will have Paul George draped on him much of the time.

The Trail Blazers got swept out of the first round by the Pelicans last season and it was embarrassing for the franchise. This season they get the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, and if the Trail Blazers are crushed again changes could be coming. It’s on Lillard.

4) Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder. Back in December, Paul George was a force of nature: 30.8 points and 8.9 rebounds a game, all on an insanely efficient 63.1 true shooting percentage. It was much the same in January, 29.6 points and a 60.1 true shooting percentage. He vaulted himself into the MVP conversation. In those months, the Thunder were 29-18.

After the All-Star break, battling a shoulder issue, George averaged 26.4 points per game with a true shooting percentage near the league average at 54.3. He wasn’t the same on either end. OKC had a record of 12-13.

Russell Westbrook will put up numbers, but don’t expect efficiency. If the Thunder are going to make any kind of run, it will be because George returned to peak form — and some of that peak was against Portland, he destroyed them this season. Which is why this is concerning.

If George is not elite it could be another quick exit for the Thunder.

5) Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz. Donovan Mitchell admitted that it took him a while to adjust this season. He was now the guy at the top of all the scouting reports, teams were putting their best defenders on him and taking away his preferred moves. In December Mitchell averaged 18.2 points a game (his only month below 20) with a 47.3 true shooting percentage that was well below the league average. He was struggling.

Mitchell watched the film, went to his counters, trusted himself and stepped up his game. After the All-Star break he averaged 26.7 points a game with a very efficient 58.1 true shooting percentage. He was back and the Jazz were one of the best teams in the NBA.

Utah drew Harden and the Rockets in the first round. If the Jazz are going to pull the upset, Mitchell is going to have play near a James Harden level — and get more help (and defense) than Harden does. It’s possible, this should be a close series, but the pressure is on Mitchell to make it happen.

Just in time: Portland’s CJ McCollum upgraded to probable for Sunday vs. Denver

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Portland rallied and played well for the 10 games CJ McCollum was out with a left knee injury, going 8-2 with a +8.2 net rating.

However, they were not much of a playoff threat without him and Jusuf Nurkick (out for the remainder of the year with a compound leg fracture). At least the Trail Blazers are getting McCollum back, he is expected to play Sunday against Denver in a game crucial playoff seeding.

McCollum has averaged 21.3 points per game this season, shot 38 percent from three, and the Trail Blazers are 6.2 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court.

Portland needs that Sunday.

This game against Denver matters if Portland wants to start the playoffs at home. The Trail Blazers sit as the four seed in the West but are just one game up on red-hot Utah (seven wins in a row) going into Sunday (and the Jazz play what’s left of the Lakers Sunday). Lose this one and the Trail Blazers are likely tied for the final spot at the end of the night. Also, Portland also could catch the Rockets for the three seed, but Houston would have to help out with some losses.

PBT Podcast: What’s next for Portland Trail Blazers?

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CJ McCollum was already out (maybe for the rest of the regular season) when Portland center and third-best player Jusuf Nurkic went down with a horrific leg injury.

Where does that leave Damian Lillard and Portland heading into these playoffs? Have they become the team everyone else wants to face in the first round now?

Beyond that, what happens this summer in Portland? Do they keep the core together, try to add role players and make another run at it, or is it time to see what the trade market is for McCollum.

Dane Delgado, Blazers’ analyst for NBC Sports Northwest, joins me to talk about all of that, and how the death of owner Paul Allen and the potential sale of the team plays into all of that. We also get into how the rest of the West might shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.