Key matchups abound as Blazers, Thunder clash
The matchups are intriguing as the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder square off with the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday in the opener of a first-round Western Conference playoff series.
All-Star point guards Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City and Damian Lillard of Portland have a sometimes heated on-court rivalry. Centers Enes Kanter of Portland and Steven Adams of OKC played together during Kanter's 2 1/2 seasons with the Thunder and should be key in what could be a rugged rebounding battle.
Portland is the No. 3 seed and Oklahoma City is No. 6, but oddsmakers have made the Thunder the favorite in the series, presumably based on OKC's 4-0 regular-season sweep of the Blazers and the fact that Portland will be without injured starting post Jusuf Nurkic.
Lillard is quick to point out that most pundits forecast the Blazers to finish between ninth and 11th in the West.
"They didn't even pick us to be a playoff team, period," Lillard said. "We didn't value their opinion then, and we don't value it now. They can pick whoever they want to pick, but you still have to go out there and play the games."
Lillard and Westbrook had impressive stat lines in the regular-season series.
Lillard posted his highest scoring average against a West opponent (34.8) and exploded for a season-high 51 points in an overtime loss on March 7. Westbrook averaged 29.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the four games. He shot 43.2 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from 3-point range.
The Blazers hope to find a way to contain OKC's Paul George, who was sensational in the regular-season series, averaging 38.0 points (with games of 37, 36, 47 and 32) along with 10.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.8 steals per game. George missed the Thunder's win over Milwaukee on Wednesday with a sore right shoulder, but said he will be ready to go Sunday.
"It's playoff time," George said. "It's about being out there with my guys. So, as close as I can get it to 100 (percent) as possible, you (can) expect me out there Sunday."
In the absence of Nurkic, Kanter's role grows even more important for the Blazers, who rank second in the league in rebounding percentage with the Thunder third in that category. Kanter must keep Adams off the boards as well as help negate drives to the basket by George and Westbrook.
"They have two great offensive scorers," Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
"Enes' role as a help defender and defensive rebounder is our biggest concern for him. It's a team game. Everybody has to do their job, but mostly he'll be matched up against Adams, who is a very good offensive rebounder and plays well off of Westbrook and George. So he has to be able to hold his own against Adams and still be a good help defender."
Said Lillard: "One big thing for us is understanding they want to play in transition. We have to take care of the ball, to value possessions even more and try to make them play more in the halfcourt. Also, rebounding. Adams is a beast on the offensive glass. Russ is a great rebounder. (Jerami) Grant is a great rebounder. Those two things are going to be huge."
Oklahoma City is concerned with the offensive prowess of Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum, who has returned to the lineup after missing 10 games late in the regular season with a knee injury.
Adams will be expected to show on the pick-and-roll plays, negating open looks for the Blazers' high-scoring pair while also making sure Kanter doesn't get layups or dunks on the roll.
"It's a guard-oriented team," Adams said. "They play off the guards a lot, but they play through the 'big,' too. (Kanter) is going to be like a distributor. (The Blazers) have him up high to be like a quarterback."
Both teams have struggled in the playoffs of late. The Blazers have lost nine straight games in the postseason dating to 2016. The Thunder were knocked out in the first round the past two years.
"We both have something to prove," Lillard said. "We're hoping we're the ones who will do it in this series."
--Field Level Media
Updated April 13, 2019