Paul George, Russell Westbrook Lead Thunder Past Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 23, 2019

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, center, Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, left, and guard Evan Turner, right, chase a loose ball in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Oklahoma City Thunder kept possession of the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference on Tuesday with a 123-114 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Oklahoma City has now won three games in a row, while the Trail Blazers saw their own three-game winning streak come to an end.

Paul George spearheaded the scoring for the victors with 36 points, eight rebounds and five steals, while Russell Westbrook added a triple-double of 29 points, 14 assists and 10 boards. All five starters scored in double figures in the balanced attack.

Damian Lillard (34 points and eight dimes), CJ McCollum (31 points) and Jusuf Nurkic (22 points and 15 rebounds) led the way for Portland.

          

Struggling Westbrook Must Look to Facilitate First, Shoot Second to Help Thunder Find Success

It was clear from the early going Westbrook made a point of feeding his teammates and passing up his own looks for better shots, and the result was seven first-half assists and a seven-point lead.

He recognized George had a hot hand and looked for him accordingly. He also found Steven Adams down low multiple times, including with a behind-the-back pass for an easy layup.

It was a welcome sign for the Thunder, who have to be concerned with the seven-time All-Star's efficiency this season. Westbrook entered play shooting just 41.5 percent from the field—which is his lowest mark since he was a rookie in 2008-09—and 24.2 percent from three-point range—which is the second-lowest mark of his career and far too low for someone attempting 4.8 threes per game.

He is even struggling from the charity stripe with a 64.6 percent clip, which would be just the second time in his career he finished below 78 percent.

There is no doubt Westbrook is among the most talented players in the league, but the shooting woes are more pressing because he always has the ball in his hands and rarely hesitates to look for his shot. Among players who have played more than seven contests this season, Westbrook is tied with Giannis Antetokounmpo for fifth in the league in usage rate at 30.4 percent, per NBA.com.

It would be one thing if he was the lone playmaker on an overmatched team who had to make plays every night for his team to win, a la James Harden on the Houston Rockets while Chris Paul and Clint Capela are sidelined, but he's not.

George is putting up All-Star numbers with a career-best 26.8 points per game, and Adams is posting a career-high 15.3 points a night as well.

There are more efficient options on the roster, and Westbrook's ability to recognize as much will be critical in potential playoff series in the daunting Western Conference. OKC will need to maximize its efficiency against the dominant Golden State Warriors, deep Denver Nuggets or even superstar-driven team like Harden's Rockets or LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers.

Westbrook can't steamroll into double teams and force three-pointers given the way he has shot this season and should instead look to facilitate first and then find his own scoring chances after the defense starts to cut off his passing lanes.

He emphasized doing just that for stretches in Tuesday's contest even while shooting 20 times from the field and should continue relying on his impressive passing skills and talented teammates as a first option as the playoffs approach.

          

Top-Heavy Blazers Still Need More From Supporting Cast

It was three Trail Blazers against everyone else for extended stretches of Tuesday's game, as Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic combined for 64 points through the first three quarters with Meyers Leonard (seven points) as the only other member of the team with more than four.

The lack of help from the supporting cast has been a theme this season, as only the primary three playmakers are averaging double-figures in scoring.

Fortunately for Portland, the backcourt tandem is one of the best one-two punches in the league, and Nurkic is playing inspired basketball of late. Tuesday's effort marked his seventh double-double in 12 January games, and he scored 22 points in Monday's win over the Utah Jazz.

That is enough production to win plenty of regular-season games, but it will be a different story in the playoffs.

Every possession takes on more meaning, and teams will emphasize defensive sets to prevent the stars from taking over as they seek out Portland's weaknesses. The trio will need other members of the supporting cast such as Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu or Zach Collins to make more plays to overcome the increased defensive intensity.

That was an issue last year when the New Orleans Pelicans swarmed Lillard and held him to 35.2 percent shooting from the field as they swept the Trail Blazers in the first round.

This is a team that has lost in the first round in three of the last four seasons and will need more from the supporting cast against the talented Western Conference squads it will face if it is going to take the next step as a true contender.

            

What's Next? 

Both teams play Thursday. The Trail Blazers are facing the Phoenix Suns on the road at Talking Stick Resort Arena, and the Thunder are hosting the New Orleans Pelicans.

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