Damian Lillard did it again

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Damian Lillard did it again.

On Tuesday night when the Portland Trail Blazers needed him most, Lillard came through. Things were tight between Portland the Oklahoma City Thunder late in Game 5 at Moda Center. Both Russell Westbrook and Paul George played with five fouls in the fourth quarter, and after an explosive first half where Lillard scored 34 points, things had slowed for Portland.

In the second half, Westbrook played the part of the bully against CJ McCollum, and George was fantastic, eventually scoring 36 points with nine rebounds and three assists.

But things seemed to turn around when Jusuf Nurkic, out with a broken leg, returned to the Blazers bench with three-and-a-half minutes left and Portland down by eight. Nurkic said he left his house with a few minutes to go in the third quarter, anticipating his team could use his good spirits. Indeed, Nurkic’s presence seemed to fuel Portland. When Nurkic showed up, the home team immediately went on an 8-0 run.

Then, Lillard did what he does best.

After hitting the two-for-one shot with 32 seconds left, Lillard found himself with the ball, the game tied, and the shot clock off. As time ticked down and with the game on the line, Lillard hit the biggest shot of the night, right as time expired.

It was the shot that won the series.

You wouldn’t be mistaken if you equated Tuesday night’s big shot to the one Lillard hit in 2014 to beat the Houston Rockets and send Portland into the second round of the playoffs. In fact, I was at that game and I can tell you it was a defining moment for the franchise over the past half-decade.

But this was so much more.

Lillard’s shot to beat the Thunder solidified several things, both about the team and about the star guard himself. The Blazers have been a squad that have relied on its bench and supporting cast all season long, even more so with Nurkic out. But when the Thunder played perhaps one of their best games of the postseason, it was Lillard’s 50-point performance that moved them forward.

Portland is a team’s team, but in the end, it was their star that they needed.

Portland and Lillard have had it their fair share of doubters over the past several years. The idea that they could — or should — have a team built on the backs of Lillard and McCollum has raised the eyebrows of many, including myself. But externally, and particularly after their playoff sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans last season, it appeared most were ready to write off this team altogether.

But this playoff series, and this team, is different. They’ve been different all season long, right down to the rotations and flexibility that head coach Terry Stotts has enabled this season. Stotts has gone deeper into his bench, and altered his Flow offense in a way that has helped Portland stay fresh after years of running the same old song and dance.

Guys like Jake Layman, Seth Curry, Zach Collins, and Enes Kanter have all stepped up over the course of the season to be able to contribute to a squad that is needed more than just Lillard and McCollum.

To that end, Portland rose again and again to the challenge.

Despite some of their losses, the Thunder gave numerous gut punches to the Blazers that would have seen previous iterations of this team fold. But Portland has been stronger, both as a unit and as Lillard has solidified himself as a more complete two-way player.

The idea that Lillard came back stronger and as more of a leader, ready for adversity, is not a supposition. At this point, it’s fact. You can see how the rest of the team has banded behind him in support of his path forward. Hell, Kanter told reporters after the game on Tuesday that he separated his shoulder and had to have an injection at halftime. That’s how bad these Blazers wanted to win, and how much they wanted to push not just for themselves, but for Lillard.

Thanks to Lillard’s shot (and McCollum’s jumpers, and Maurice Harkless’ free throws) Portland beat the Thunder, 118-115. They advance to the second round, and Rip City will be buzzing all week long. They deserve it, and they’ll be real contenders to challenge for a Western Conference Finals berth.

But where does that leave us when we think about Lillard, and these Blazers? If his famous “0.9” shot from 2014 was the thing that put him on the map, Tuesday’s 37-foot step-back jumper over George was the thing that made Lillard a legend.

The impossibility of that jumper — and the sheer gall to take it — is what makes Damian Lillard who he is.

That is, the greatest Blazer of all-time.

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.

Blazers take Game 1, Paul George’s shoulder could decide series

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The Oklahoma City Thunder are in trouble. Yes, Russell Westbrook and Paul George lost Sunday’s Game 1 matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers, 104-99. Portland lead by as many as 19 points at one point in the first half, but the Thunder rallied with solid play as they capitalized on Blazers turnovers.

But all that is in the background for now. At this point, after seeing George play with an injured shoulder — or shoulders? — it appears Oklahoma City has bigger issues.

George’s alter ego “Playoff P” was nowhere to be found despite the Thunder star logging 26 points, 10 rebounds, and four steals. That stat line was not indicative of how George played, particularly as a shooter. He shot just 26.6% from 3-point range, and was easily susceptible to blocks from the likes of Portland defenders like Maurice Harkless. George was inert, predictable, and unable to overpower his opponents the way he has as an MVP candidate this season.

News from Moda Center after the game from George himself wasn’t exactly encouraging, either. In fact, George said that he couldn’t even lift his shoulder four days ago.

Via Twitter:

The game still ended up being just a five-point affair, with Portland running out of gas and playing sloppy down stretch. Damian Lillard was the Blazers’ saving grace, adding 14 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter alone.

It’s true that the first game of the playoffs can often belie the true nature of the coming battle between two teams. There’s usually no need to overreact to a single result as coaching staffs make huge adjustments from game-to-game.

But it could be different for Oklahoma City.

Sunday’s game against the Blazers showed that Portland has enough firepower, particularly with their rotational players like Enes Kanter and Seth Curry. Former New York Knicks big man had a monster game, scoring 20 points with 18 rebounds, two assists, and two blocks.

You can also expect Rodney Hood, Evan Turner, and Harkless to make a bigger impact as the series goes along.

So where does that leave the Thunder?

In a word: exasperated.

That much was was clear after the game when Westbrook gave two consecutive “next question” responses to a reporter from Oklahoma City.

Portland has been a solid story all season, and they are more of a team-oriented squad now than they have been since 2015. Damian Lillard is a top five MVP candidate, and the fact that McCollum has come back from a knee muscle strain this soon is an indicator of how serious this team is about getting out of the first round.

The Blazers have been swept the last two postseasons in a row, and it was immediately evident in the first quarter on Sunday that they were not looking to continue that streak. Portland was everywhere, diving for loose balls, jumping into passing lanes, and giving maximum effort that petered the edge of control.

Westbrook played the way that Westbrook does. He notched another triple-double against the Blazers in Game 1, and the rest of the Thunder contributed in kind. But this version of Oklahoma City isn’t strong enough to beat Portland when they are firing on all cylinders, particularly as the Blazers have found a bit of depth and momentum heading into the postseason.

Blazers got a win at home and the Thunder continued their streak of losing the first game of the first round. Game 2 is on Tuesday, again in Northeast Portland, and the Blazers will have an eye on grabbing a serious lead before switching locations for Game 3.

Portland will be digesting tape and analyzing the Thunder’s tendencies. Oklahoma City knows that, for all their own study, their season could hinge on the treatment George can receive over the next 48 hours.

For now, the biggest question in Portland will be about George’s shoulders, and whether he can find some explosiveness to match the Blazers’ talent in Game 2.

Maurice Harkless hits game-winning 3-pointer to beat Lakers (VIDEO)

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The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t have LeBron James. They didn’t have Magic Johnson. But somehow they still had a chance against the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

The Blazers, always a team to play down to their opponents, played a motley crew of Los Angeles starters down to the wire at Staples Center in the hours after Johnson announced his abrupt resignation of his post atop the front office.

For his part, Maurice Harkless was one of the most valuable Blazers. On a night where he seemingly battled back and forth with L.A.’s Alex Caruso, Harkless notched a stat line of 26 points, eight rebounds, and four blocks.

But no play was bigger for the Blazers then when Harkless hit the game-winning shot from the corner immediately following a Seth Curry steal.

Via Twitter:

Thanks to a Houston Rockets loss at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday, the Blazers now control their own destiny for the third seed in the Western Conference playoffs. If they beat the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday at Moda Center in Portland, they will be able to take the third playoff ranking for the second year in a row.

More importantly, Portland needs Harkless to play at his peak for them to have a shot in the playoffs without Jusuf Nurkic, and it appears that he is slowly rounding into form. There is an idea that Harkless is a player who waits for the playoffs to really find motivation, and perhaps this late-season spark will push the Blazers past the agony of last year.

No timetable for CJ McCollum to return from unusual knee injury

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Nobody really knows what to expect.

Including the guy whose knee has become the focus of attention in Portland.

It looked like it could be much worse when it happened Saturday in San Antonio. CJ McCollum drove the lane, there was some contact with Jakob Poeltl but nothing that drew a foul, yet when McCollum landed he went to the ground, instantly grabbed his knee and just laid there, curled up behind the baseline.

McCollum “just” suffered a strained popliteus, the muscle in the back of his left knee. “Just” as in there were no torn ligaments, but that’s a muscle McCollum said he needed to research when he got the news.

“I think it’s definitely a different type of injury because I’ve never really seen it before, besides Kevin Garnett years ago…” McCollum said. “I had to do some research on it.”

What that research showed is back in 2009 Kevin Garnett missed 13 games and basically the playoffs because of this injury. That same timeline would have McCollum back right around the start of the playoffs.

But there is no timeline for McCollum. Mostly because nobody knows exactly what to expect.

“I feel alright…” McCollum told NBC Sports. “The timeline now is just to continue to evaluate after a week, to take it a week at a time, a day at a time and see where I’m at.

“I think because there’s not a lot of information and research on it, this is just kind of a case-by-case basis based on the player, on where he is in his career, and how fast they can recover and heal. That’s how we’re approaching it, just doing what the trainers tell me to do, adding some different nutrients, different things in the weight room, just trying to speed the healing process.”

McCollum admitted it was nerve-racking when the injury happened and he had to wait a day for the diagnosis.

“Any time you have an injury around the knee, those types of areas, you have concern, you don’t know for sure what it is, you need an MRI to tell you what is happening, what’s going on in the knee,” McCollum said. “It was definitely a scary time, just because there is so much uncertainty. Essentially another day where you don’t really know what’s going on, then you have to sit with the MRI for an hour and basically wait to tell them your fate.”

While recovering, McCollum is busy promoting his new partnership with Old Spice. Particularly, he likes the Fresher Collection, which uses natural ingredients in a body wash, shampoo, deodorant, and more to help guys smell better.

“They’ve released their Fresher Collection with real ingredients that are a real benefit, like moisturizing with Shea butter and relaxing with lavender,” McCollum said. “Might as well be fresh when I’m not able to play.”

Make no mistake, McCollum wants to play.

The hope (and maybe expectation) is he will be ready for the playoffs, starting in the middle of April. McCollum said he believes this Portland roster is poised to make some postseason noise.

“We need to execute, we need to execute down the stretch,” McCollum said. “In the playoffs, it becomes a half court game. You’ve got to be able to get stops, you’ve got to be able to score in a slower paced game, and I think we’re built for that.

McCollum pointed to players such as the improved Jusuf Nurkic, plus Enes Kanter, Seth Curry, and Jake Layman as versatile players who can help them win in the postseason. McCollum said this roster is better poised for the playoffs.

“We have some depth, we have some key guys at certain positions who can help us compete against a lot of different teams that play different ways,” McCollum said.

But to do that, Portland needs McCollum back. He averaged 21.3 points per game this season, but what he brings in terms of shooting and ability to drive opens up much more for all his teammates. McCollum is part of the backcourt, along with Damian Lillard, that fuels everything Portland does.

Which means he needs to get his knee healthy. However long it takes.