Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers Take 2-0 Series Lead vs Russell Westbrook, Thunder

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2019

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, reacts after making a basket as Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George, left, trails the play during the first half of Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series in Portland, Ore., Sunday, April 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Dipaola)
Steve Dipaola/Associated Press

The Portland Trail Blazers are two wins away from their second playoff series victory in five years following Tuesday's 114-94 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 at Moda Center.

Oklahoma City swept Portland in their four regular-season matchups, but the first-round playoff series has been a different story as the Western Conference's No. 3 seed defended home court in the opening two games.

Damian Lillard (29 points, six assists, five rebounds, three steals, two blocks, four made three-pointers) and CJ McCollum (33 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three made three-pointers) were too much for the Thunder, and Maurice Harkless added 14 points and nine boards in support.

Paul George (27 points, eight rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (14 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds) spearheaded the losing effort for Oklahoma City.

          

Dame, CJ Combo Will Propel Trail Blazers to Western Conference Finals

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Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson won't be the only dynamic duo backcourt in the Western Conference Finals.

Lillard and McCollum were brilliant for extended stretches in Tuesday's game and set the stage for their eventual run to the third round of the playoffs. Any time OKC built momentum, one of them darted through the lane, drilled a critical three-pointer or facilitated for teammates when defenders came too far out on their shots or collapsed on their penetration.

McCollum drilled a buzzer-beating three on a beautiful assist from his running mate to tie the game at the half, and they went into takeover mode the rest of the way.

The ball is always in one of their hands, which means they are in complete control—much like in Game 1 when Lillard connected on monumental triples, including one from well beyond the arc to push the lead to four with less than three minutes remaining.

While Lillard is known for his offense, his suffocating defense on Westbrook on the other end was the primary reason the 2016-17 MVP went a mere 5-of-20 from the field and struggled to establish a rhythm throughout the game.

The talent, clutch factor and ability to rely on each other when one is either struggling or facing an elite defender is one reason the Trail Blazers will be in the Western Conference Finals, but so is their position in the postseason bracket.

Mighty Golden State is on the other side. The Houston Rockets, who are likely the Warriors' primary challengers after pushing them to seven games in last season's Western Conference Finals, are on the other side of the bracket. The red-hot Utah Jazz that finished the regular season on a 13-3 run are on the other side of the bracket.

Even the scrappy Los Angeles Clippers, who overcame a 31-point deficit against the Warriors in Monday's contest and would bring a physical presence throughout an extended series, are on the other side of the bracket.

If Portland can parlay its 2-0 lead over the Thunder into a series victory, its backcourt combination won't have to deal with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, James Harden, Chris Paul or Donovan Mitchell until the Western Conference Finals.

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It will play either the Denver Nuggets or San Antonio Spurs in the second round, each of which features their own concerns.

Denver is inexperienced at this time of year, seeing how it made the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 campaign. It also hasn't won a playoff series since 2009 and already lost home-court advantage to the Spurs in Game 1.

San Antonio deserves respect given the infrastructure in place with Gregg Popovich and 22 straight playoff appearances, but the Spurs don't have the defensive capability to slow Lillard and McCollum. They were an ugly 20th in the league in defensive rating during the regular season, per NBA.com, and no longer have a stopper like Kawhi Leonard to prevent the guards from taking over in crunch time.

Get ready for a showdown between the Lillard-McCollum tandem and Curry-Thompson tandem because Portland's guards are going to propel the Blazers into the Western Conference Finals.

              

Westbrook's Focus on Individual Matchup with Dame Primed to Derail Thunder

The Westbrook and Lillard matchup was sure to take center stage entering this series, and it did again Tuesday when the point guards had a physical exchange in the first half.

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However, Lillard had the last laugh for the second game in a row. He fed off the energy of the crowd while serving as a driving force for Portland as it overcame a slow start and dominated the second half. His shot-making was again on full display from well beyond the arc, and he didn't back down from guarding the lightning-quick Westbrook on the other end.

Westbrook appeared to press at times, trying to match his counterpart's effort instead of facilitating for George and attempting to use his explosiveness to work in the lane and create easier looks.

As a result, he was 1-of-6 from three-point range, shot 25 percent from the field and turned it over six times.

It is not particularly surprising Westbrook focused so much on matching Lillard given their recent history. Cody Taylor of USA Today's Thunder Wire noted the Thunder point guard appeared to tell Lillard he has "been busting that ass for years" during a regular-season matchup and didn't hesitate to taunt the Portland fans:

He had every right to express bravado at the time since OKC swept Rip City in the regular season, but his team suddenly has its back against the wall with a 2-0 hole and George nursing a shoulder injury.

While George, who's less than 100 percent, was impressive in Tuesday's contest, it is asking a lot for him to play like the MVP candidate he was for much of the season. That means it could be up to Westbrook to lead the Thunder back into this series in front of the home fans.

He is certainly capable of doing just that, but he cannot focus so much on the individual matchup with Lillard.

It derailed his game Tuesday and could derail his entire team in the series.

             

What's Next?

The series shifts to Oklahoma City for Friday's Game 3 and Sunday's Game 4.

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