PORTLAND, Ore. — The playoffs are more fun with a little bad blood. And as the Portland Trail Blazers head to Oklahoma City with a 2-0 series lead over the Thunder, All-Star point guards Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook are bringing just the kind of edge that makes for unforgettable theater.
Lillard vs. Westbrook has everything you want in an NBA rivalry. It's a battle of styles—Westbrook's uncompromising attack and Lillard's composure in the clutch. It's one point guard trying to hold onto his longstanding place in the Western Conference hierarchy, and another who is fighting for, and finally starting to receive, that same respect. The history is there, and all of the tension came to a head and stole the show in Game 2, a 114-94 win for Portland.
With just under three minutes left in the first half, Lillard and Westbrook had to be separated after getting tangled up over a loose ball. Officials reviewed the play for a possible hostile act, but nothing came of it—just a heated exchange between two tough, prideful superstars.
At that point, Oklahoma City held a seven-point lead. But Lillard's encounter with Westbrook gave the Blazers a shot in the arm, and they closed out the half on a 9-2 run to tie the score.
Five minutes into the third quarter and there was another, less contentious flashpoint as Lillard covered Westbrook on the perimeter. He played a little off him, daring him to shoot the three, knowing he had shot 3-of-13 from the field in the first half. Westbrook shot and missed. Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu got the rebound and threw an outlet pass to Lillard, who calmly pulled up from 30 feet and drained one of his patented "Logo Lillard" shots—right in Westbrook's face.
It's a shot Lillard shoots, and makes, all the time. No one in the NBA not named Stephen Curry is more feared when it comes to that kind of attempt, one that can quiet an arena and stop a run, one that would be reckless and irresponsible leaving anyone else's hands.
The satisfaction of hitting it over Westbrook, given their history, and in the aftermath of their first-quarter skirmish, was all over Lillard's face. This meant a little more to him.
"Two pit bulls, man," Blazers guard CJ McCollum said after the game. "You've got two competitive guys who play hard and are well-known All-Stars, faces of their franchise and the stakes are high. If you're a competitor, you look forward to these opportunities."
Make no mistake: It's personal between these two. Westbrook has built his career on an "If you're not with me, you're against me" mentality, and Lillard is fueled by remembering every slight, every doubter. Put those two on the same playoff stage, and there's bound to be some tension.
In some ways, they're two sides of the same coin. There are surface-level similarities: Both are ferociously competitive point guards from California who share a jersey number and a defiant rejection of team-up culture, instead choosing loyalty to the small markets that drafted them.
Both are supremely confident, and that manifests itself in different ways. Westbrook is brash, Lillard is understated. Westbrook is a force of nature who is impossible to ignore on the court, for better or worse. Lillard is so dependable and steady that it's easy to take him for granted.
During the 2017-18 season, Lillard took exception to what he perceived as a shot at him from Westbrook over his advocating publicly for an All-Star selection. More recently, in a Jan. 23 Thunder win over the Blazers, Westbrook was captured on video appearing to tell Lillard he's been "busting that ass for years."
Compounding these stakes, neither the Blazers nor the Thunder have won a playoff series since 2016, and both of their superstar point guards are working to reverse the narratives attached to them and their teams.
Westbrook has reached postseason grandeur before: The Thunder made the Finals in 2012 and were a consistent presence in the Western Conference Finals until Kevin Durant's departure for the Golden State Warriors in 2016. Since then, he's fought against the perceptions that he's too unreliable to build a contender around and that he cares too much about chasing triple-doubles to be a championship-caliber player. It doesn't help his case that his shooting this season was historically awful for a player with his usage.
Lillard has never been as far as Westbrook has. The Blazers have only made it out of the first round twice in his seven-year career. They're coming off of two consecutive first-round sweeps, at the hands of the eventual champion Warriors in 2017 (understandable) and last year against a New Orleans Pelicans team they still feel they should have beaten.
As the early playoff exits have piled up, Lillard has been widely viewed as a very good player—one of the best point guards and a perennial All-Star capable of leading the Blazers to 50-win seasons but not much beyond that. He isn't quite considered in the same stratosphere as the likes of Curry, Durant, James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
So, yes, the stakes are high for both of them. Lillard and Westbrook want to want to take their teams deep in the playoffs, but they also want to change the conversation about their own careers. In the first round, those goals are directly at odds. Of course it's going to get heated.
"The playoffs bring it out of you," Blazers center Meyers Leonard told Bleacher Report. "When you get swept in the playoffs, you don't forget that. And not only that, [Oklahoma City] swept us in the regular season. Dame is one of the most competitive people I've ever met. He's an incredible leader, and we look to him for his intensity, focus, playmaking, scoring ability, literally everything. He knows he has that on his shoulders. This is a team that's had some success against us, so we really wanted to put our foot down."
That's precisely what the Blazers have done in the opening two games. As the Thunder have dealt with concerns about Paul George's ailing shoulder and a team-wide cold shooting spell, the Blazers have rolled. Lillard and McCollum combined for 54 points in Game 1 and 62 in Game 2, and Portland has gotten solid contributions from role players like Enes Kanter and Maurice Harkless.
But the emotional heartbeat of this series has been the battle between Lillard and Westbrook. They've been on this stage separately, but never together. The result has been the most compelling stylistic and interpersonal warfare of the first round.
"I really don't have a choice but to embrace it," Lillard said, sitting at the podium after a beginning bout with playoff adversity that couldn't have gone much better for him or the Blazers.
"Our minds are made up that we're going to take that challenge. Our season is on the line."
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.