CJ McCollum, Blazers Beat Thunder as Damian Lillard Outplays Russell Westbrook

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2019

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket as Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) defends in the first half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series Sunday, April 21, 2019, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Alonzo Adams)
Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

The Portland Trail Blazers seized control of their heated first-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder with a 111-98 victory in Sunday's Game 4 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Damian Lillard and the third-seeded Trail Blazers lead 3-1 after salvaging a split in the two games in OKC and can finish the series at home.

The backcourt combination of Lillard (24 points, eight assists, three rebounds and four three-pointers) and CJ McCollum (27 points, four rebounds, three assists and five three-pointers) led the way for Portland as usual, while Al-Farouq Aminu (19 points, nine boards and four three-pointers) provided support.

Paul George thrived with 32 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, but Russell Westbrook was a mere 5-of-21 from the field for 14 points and three turnovers.

            

Dame Reaching Next Level of Stardom as He Wins the Battle vs. Westbrook

No storyline in the largely predictable first round of the NBA playoffs has been better than the individual battle between Westbrook and Lillard, and the latter is using it to propel himself to a new level of stardom.

Westbrook has been in the national spotlight throughout his career; even the most casual fans are well aware of him and the relentless tenacity with which he plays on a nightly basis.

He made an NBA Finals at a young age while playing alongside Kevin Durant and James Harden, became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for an entire season and is a two-time All-Star Game MVP, two-time scoring champion and the star of multiple national commercials.

On the other hand, Lillard often plays late-night games in the Pacific time zone and is more known for his calmness under pressure than his desire to play like a burning flame of energy. That ice in his veins leads to "Dame Time" in the fourth quarter, even if he hasn't yet advanced past the second round of the playoffs.

Even though he is arguably the best point guard in the league this side of Stephen Curry, he hasn't had the national-spotlight moments to which his counterpart in this series has become accustomed.

This individual battle—and the fact he is prevailing—can help change that.

The first three games were defined by the back-and-forth between Lillard and Westbrook with shoves, scraps for loose balls and constant trash talk. The end of Game 3 was particularly chippy when Westbrook fanned the flames with some late baskets that ignited the OKC crowd in a win.

It set the stage for a dramatic Game 4 in which the Thunder would fight for their postseason lives, and Lillard was ice cold from the start. However, he didn't let the emotion of the moment get the best of him, quickly turned the tide on the game and put Westbrook on the brink of an early elimination.

Lillard knocked down a fadeaway jumper, hit a contested three-pointer and found Aminu for a corner three on Portland's final three possessions of the first half, turning a four-point deficit into a four-point lead. He carried the momentum into the second half and went into takeover mode during the third quarter as his team built a double-digit lead.

He darted through OKC's defense with jab steps and quick-twitch explosiveness, and he needed just the smallest sliver of space to unleash his three-pointers or soft-touch runners in the lane. Lillard was in complete command with his ability to control the pace and torch the defense like a quiet assassin, leaving the home crowd stunned and the Game 3 loss firmly in the rearview mirror.

National audiences are tuning in to see this battle, and Lillard has consistently gotten the best of Westbrook.

That will only serve to bolster his individual stature, setting him up for a run to his first Western Conference Finals and the additional notoriety that will come with such an appearance.

            

Thunder Have Turned into NBA's Biggest Disappointment in the Last 2 Years

It has been the Golden State Warriors' league the last five years, as the two-time reigning champions are chasing their fifth straight NBA Finals appearance and fourth Larry O'Brien Trophy in that time frame.

While the Houston Rockets have emerged as their primary foil in the Western Conference, the Thunder once looked like they could claim that role.

Oklahoma City nearly stunned Golden State in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, which went the full seven games. But the battles with Westbrook and Kevin Durant on one side and Curry and Klay Thompson on the other ended when Durant joined the Warriors. Still, the Thunder signed George prior to the 2017-18 campaign and appeared to reignite their championship window.

George figured to be a natural secondary playmaker to Westbrook because he is a dominant defender who can guard the opponent's best player and allow the point guard to conserve some of his unending energy for the offensive end. He's also someone who seems fine playing away from the ball and taking advantage of openings Westbrook created rather than demanding isolation sets.

Things were on track heading into last postseason with home-court advantage in a matchup against the Utah Jazz. Utah's best offensive player was a talented but untested rookie in Donovan Mitchell, and the Thunder had the Westbrook-George combination plus future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony and double-double threat Steven Adams.

Instead of winning and taking a step toward another showdown with the Warriors, OKC lost in six as George was even outplayed by Joe Ingles for stretches.

However, George eschewed signing with the Los Angeles Lakers—or any other team—in free agency and came back to play alongside Westbrook with a year together under their belt, a new sense of familiarity and a higher ceiling.

For much of the season, it seemed as if the Thunder were past the struggles that haunted them against the Jazz. George played like an MVP candidate and Westbrook averaged a triple-double, culminating in five straight victories to finish the regular season and set up a matchup with a Trail Blazers squad missing injured center Jusuf Nurkic.

What's more, the Warriors and Rockets were on the other side of the Western Conference bracket and wouldn't be an obstacle until the conference finals.

Yet again, the Thunder have come up painfully short in the postseason and are now one loss away from a third straight first-round exit since Durant's departure.

Westbrook has, at times, gotten far too caught up in the individual battle with Lillard, while George has been haunted by inconsistent shooting as he battles a shoulder injury. Barring a dramatic 3-1 comeback, this talented but flawed squad will once again be at home and looking for answers in the second round.

No team has fallen as short of realistic expectations as the Thunder the past two years, and losing to a short-handed Portland team that has won just two playoff series over the last six years only serves to drive home the point.

             

What's Next?

The series returns to Portland for Tuesday's Game 5.

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