PORTLAND, Ore. — What a difference a year makes.
Nearly one year ago, on April 19, 2018, with the Portland Trail Blazers floundering after dropping the first two playoff games at home against the New Orleans Pelicans, we began the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast article with this line:
How are you feeling, Blazers fans?
Today, after the Blazers surprised just about everyone by winning the first two playoff games at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder, we'll ask the same question, but with a slightly different tone.
How are you feeling, Blazers fans?!?!
Last year, we pointed out that "history wasn't on Portland's side [because] after losing the first two games of a best-of-7 series, NBA teams have come back to win the series just 7 percent of the time."
This year, the Portland Trail Blazers have history on their side. This year, its the Thunder, not the Blazers, who are in a "precarious position heading to ... Games 3 and 4."
Here's one more stat to stoke your excitement, Blazers fans. The Portland Trail Blazers have NEVER lost a playoff series after winning the first two games. NEVER. They're 14-0 in series when they take Games 1 and 2.
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Listen to the most recent edition of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast:
On this week's podcast, KGW's Orlando Sanchez, Jared Cowley and Nate Hanson discuss their takeaways from the first two games, debate which role player has been most important to Portland's success, and are given a chance to revise their series predictions.
1. What has stood out to you most about the first two games of this series?
Jared: What's stood out most to me is how thoroughly Damian Lillard has dominated Russell Westbrook. Back on Jan. 22, Westbrook had 29 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds in the Thunder’s 123-114 win against the Blazers. Late in the game, with Lillard at the free-throw line, Westbrook repeatedly yelled at Lillard that he had “been busting that ass for years.” We know that Lillard is never one to back down from a challenge, and in the four head-to-head games since that exchange, Lillard has averaged 35.3 points, 6.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.3 steals, 1.3 blocks and shot 46.7% from the field and 40.5% from the 3-point line. Westbrook has averaged 24.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.5 blocks and shot 38.1% from the field and 29.2% from the 3-point line. I think most people in Portland regard Lillard as a better player than Westbrook. But after the first two games of this series, national pundits are started to say it too. I was driving home last night after the game, listening to NBA Radio, and the host was talking about why Lillard is better than Westbrook. I saw a clip of a segment on Fox Sports 1 this morning where they talked about the same subject. Lillard’s performance in the first two games of this series has elevated his national profile.
Nate: There’s a lot to choose from here. But I’m going to go with the play of Portland’s two best players, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Going into this series, they knew what was at stake not only for the team, but them personally after subpar performances in the sweep against the Pelicans last season. So far they’ve answered the call, literally from the Blazers’ first possession when Lillard pulled up and hit a 30-foot 3-pointer. They’ve controlled the series on the offensive end of the floor. The Thunder have had no answer for defending either of them and the duo has hit five more 3-pointers than Oklahoma City has in the first two games. Lillard and McCollum have come up big while Oklahoma City’s two stars, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, have been small in the first two games. Going into the series, everyone knew the shorthanded Blazers would need a monster series from Lillard and McCollum to advance. They’ve delivered in the first two games.
Orlando: It’s incredible how terrible OKC is shooting from long range. The Blazers' defense deserves some credit, but I’ve seen a lot of bricks on open looks or shots they normally knock down. Oklahoma City shot 15.2% from three in Game 1 and they followed that up by shooting 17.9% — two of their worst shooting performances of the season. Russell Westbrook is 1 for 10 in this series and Paul George is 6 for 22 from deep. I’m surprised because this was a drastic change from what we saw in four meetings during the regular season. It was the Blazers who had the problem from beyond the arc. Three of those four meetings, they finished 29% or worse. During the playoffs, Portland is hitting over 40%. That’s the difference in the series through two games.
2. Which role player (anyone but Lillard or McCollum) has had the biggest impact on the series for the Blazers so far?
Nate: I’m going to go with the player who I said was the most important player for the Blazers going into the series: Maurice Harkless. While he struggled offensively in Game 1, he was still a pest on defense hounding Paul George. George only shot 8 of 24 in that game, in part because Harkless was always in his pocket and ended up with 3 blocks and a steal in the box score, which still didn’t reflect his defensive presence. It all came together for Harkless in Game 2. He was still a disruptor on defense, but he also came alive offensively against the Thunder for the first time all season. Harkless was opportunistic, converting 6 of 9 shots and finishing with 14 points and having the best plus-minus outside of Lillard and McCollum. Harkless averaged only 2.5 points per game against the Thunder in the regular season and the Blazers managed to be competitive in all four games. The first game he breaks out offensively was the first game between these two teams that didn’t come down to the final minutes. Coincidence? Perhaps. But the Blazers got the best Harkless on Tuesday and it had a major impact.
Orlando: It’s been a different guy each night. In Game 1, Enes Kanter played on another level with his 20 and 18 stat line; if the Blazers get that type of production from him on a regular basis, Portland could make a run to the conference finals. Game 2 belonged to Maurice Harkless, who dropped 14 points and pulled down nine rebounds. His defense has been impressive and maybe even overlooked. If you’re looking for the unsung hero, it’s been Al-Farouq Aminu. He’s riding a positive plus-minus in both games, he had three blocks in one game and three steals in another. He’s doing a lot of things that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet and it’s causing problems for OKC. His length and ability to defend multiple positions can fly under the radar. Aminu is putting in the work too, he’s played more minutes than anyone on the team not named Dame or CJ. After Game 1, Lillard said he told Aminu and Harkless, "Y’all just don’t know how much I love y’all for the stuff that you do for this team and don’t get credit for it."
Jared: It's really hard to pick anyone other than Maurice Harkless. He's had a huge impact, especially on defense. Along with Al-Farouq Aminu, he's combined to make Paul George seem mortal, and in Game 2, Harkless was aggressive on offense as well. The Blazers' defense is allowing 95.1 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs (14.4 points below their regular-season average), and Harkless is a big reason why. I'm going to cheat and split my pick with a nod to Seth Curry. He's averaging 8.5 points in 17.3 minutes per game off the bench, while shooting 71.4% from the 3-point line. He's hitting shots at opportune times, too. Both of his 3-pointers came as the Blazers ran out to a 47-28 lead to start Game 1. After a scoreless first half in Game 2, Curry came alive as the Blazers ran away with it in the second half, hitting both of his 3-point attempts in the third quarter, and then another to push the Blazers' lead to 17 points midway through the fourth quarter.
3. Now that the Blazers are up 2-0, are you sticking with your series prediction? If not, what’s your revised prediction?
Orlando: I have a hard time taking back a prediction. I gotta own it and it’s not looking like a smart decision. Thunder in 6 is what I started with and I have to ride it out. Let’s see which team shows up with a change of scenery.
Jared: I picked the Blazers to win this series in seven games. When I made the pick, I thought I was going out on a limb, but I may have been too kind to the Thunder. I picked the Blazers to win the series because I thought Oklahoma City was a mess, and because Portland had home court. The Thunder have proven to be a mess, and home court has been a big advantage for the Blazers in the first two games. But I didn't expect the Blazers to play this well. They haven't been perfect; they've yet to play a complete game. But their defense has been so much better than I anticipated. During the regular season, the Thunder averaged 120.8 points against the Blazers, shot 46.5% from the field, 39.1% from the 3-point line and averaged 12.5 turnovers per game. In the first two playoff games, the Blazers are holding Oklahoma City to 96.5 points, 40.2% from the field, 16.4% from the 3-point line and forcing 16.0 turnovers. Still, I won't change my pick. I can't forget that the Thunder beat the Blazers four times during the regular season and should be a better team than what they've shown in Games 1 and 2. I expect them to play better at home. I wouldn't be surprised to see Portland win this series in five or six games, but I'm going to stick with my original prediction. Blazers in 7.
Nate: Is it OK to do a total flip flop? Or perhaps I can argue there was a typo when I said last week the Thunder would win in 5? I’ve now got the Blazers winning in 5. I expect Oklahoma City to play with a different level of intensity and shoot better at home, but I still think the Blazers will steal one on the road in Game 4. I think the Thunder are running into the same problem the Blazers had last year in the postseason. They don’t have enough shooters. Outside of Paul George, no one for Oklahoma City would be considered a good outside shooter. Meanwhile, the Blazers are getting huge contributions from Lillard and McCollum, and minor but important contributions from role players. I think that will be enough for Portland to win Game 4 and then clinch the series back home in Game 5.
MEET THE 3-ON-3 BLAZERS TEAM
Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers and other topics for KGW.com. Jared has written about the Jazz and Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.