Blazers halfway there
The Trail Blazers have tightened the noose around the necks of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now we'll see if the Blazers let them up for air.
Portland gave the Thunder little breathing room Tuesday night at Moda Center, breaking open a tight game with a torrid third quarter that paved the way to a 114-94 rout of Paul George, Russell Westbrook and company.
The Blazers grabbed a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven first-round playoff series that continues with the next two games at Chesapeake Arena. Damian Lillard said he is taking nothing for granted.
"I know how quickly things can change," Portland's All-Star point guard said. "A series doesn't start until you win a game on the road. I also know how capable their team is.
"We have to maintain our focus, stay sharp and understand how well we played in the first two games is not going to be good enough in the third game, especially on their home floor. We've got to keep our heads down and keep working."
Lillard and CJ McCollum carried the offensive load, and their teammates "did the dirty work," as McCollum put it, en route to a beat-down that seemed to leave the Thunder dejected and, perhaps, mentally defeated.
McCollum scored 33 points and Lillard 29, more than enough to quell the Thunder in a game in which their shots weren't falling — again.
One game can turn things around in a series, as Lillard suggests. But if the Thunder keep shooting from downtown as they have in the first two games, they can make reservations for cocktails at some tropical paradise beginning Monday.
Oklahoma City was 5 for 28 from 3-point range after going 5 for 33 in Game 1. That's a combined 10 for 61 (.164) for a team that shot .391 from beyond the arc in sweeping four games from the Blazers during the regular season.
George scored 27 points on 11-for-20 shooting, but was 2 for 7 from the 3-point line, making him 6 for 22 in the series.
Westbrook had a near triple-double with 14 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds, but he also had six turnovers and was 5 for 20 from the field, including 1 for 6 on 3-point attempts.
Westbrook is 1 for 10 on 3's in the series. Jerami Grant and Dennis Schroder are both 0 for 8, Terrance Ferguson 2 for 7. Soldiers from the "F Troop" never shot so poorly.
"Clearly, for the last two games, we have not shot the ball well," OKC coach Billy Donovan said. "It was encouraging in Game 1 we had a chance to win (in a 104-99 loss) while not shooting well. Certainly, the 3-point line was a major part of the story tonight."
The Blazers shot well — .467 from the field and .406 (13 for 32) from 3-point range — and defended maybe a little better. Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu made George work for everything he got, and Lillard buffaloed Westbrook, recording two blocked shots and three steals in his 37 minutes.
"He's really competitive," Portland coach Terry Stotts said of Lillard. "As a group, we're all trying to play defense, but 'Dame' is really focused at both ends of the floor. He knows how important it is.
"Dame's defense has improved over time. He's a much better defensive player than people give him credit for. No question he was locked in tonight."
The Thunder came out better than they did on Sunday, when they surrendered 39 first-quarter points to the Blazers. OKC led throughout most of the early going and was in front 46-36 with five minutes left in the second quarter.
But the Blazers fought their way back and got to even at 54-54 on a 27-foot 3-pointer by McCollum as time expired at the break.
Portland then outscored OKC 37-21 in the third quarter, Lillard duplicating McCollum with a step-back 3 as the clock hit zero to take a 91-75 lead into the final period. The Thunder got no closer than 14 points the rest of the way.
McCollum — in his fourth game since sitting out 10 with a sprained right knee — sank 12 of 22 shots from the field, 3 of 7 from 3-point range and 6 of 6 at the free throw line.
Lillard was 10 for 21 from the field, 4 for 8 from the 3-point line and 5 of 7 from the foul line.
"When you have two guys who can create their shots, create problems for the defense, it makes their teammates better," Stotts said. "Scoring is important in this game. When you have two guys like that, it's hard to replicate."
Lillard felt Portland's work at the defensive end, though, was equally important.
(OKC is) going to go as far as (Westbrook) and Paul George take them," he said. "If we don't defend him and they come out there believing and they're coming after us, we don't have much of a chance.
"We're going to take that challenge. Our season is on the line."
Lillard and McCollum got ample help. Harkless contributed 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting with nine rebounds. Seth Curry came off the bench to score nine points and knock down 3 of 4 3-point attempts. Zach Collins provided six points, four rebounds and three blocks in a reserve role and — with Enes Kanter in foul trouble and playing only 20 minutes — Meyers Leonard provided muscle at the defensive end along with five points and four rebounds, drawing a loud ovation when he departed near game's end.
George was asked what the Thunder need to do to change things after putting up their worst two 3-point shooting games of the season.
"Keep shooting," he said. "We're going to make shots. Keep shooting. We missed shots, so what? Keep shooting."
Sure. The percentages can't get any worse. Can they?
The Blazers still have two games to win to clinch the series and advance. If the trend holds, they'll get it done. Through their playoff history, the Blazers have won all 14 series in which they jumped to 2-0 leads.
That streak is likely to be broken some day, but this one won't if the Thunder don't start dialing in from long distance.