Lillard winning big
Midway through the third quarter of Tuesday night's NBA playoff game at Moda Center, Portland led Oklahoma City 66-63.
Russell Westbrook of the Thunder clanged a 3-pointer off the rim.
Damian Lillard clapped three times and took the ball up the court, then entered his shooting motion one dribble after crossing the half-court line. He buried the shot, the crowd roared, Oklahoma City called time out and Lillard flapped his hands like bird wings.
The Blazers were about to break open the game and soar to a 114-94 win and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven, first-round series.
"I was just excited," Lillard said of his reaction to that basket. "We came into the third quarter and it was a tie game (at 54-54). In the locker room, we just kept saying we've got to turn it up. We've got to keep turning it up and keep playing better on the defensive end … it wasn't about a deep 3 or anything like that — it was the fact that everything they got on offense, they either worked for or we got stops."
That Lillard moment injected momentum into the Blazers, who stepped up their defensive play and held Oklahoma City to 21 points in the third quarter. The deep 3 served as a microcosm for how he is decidedly winning his oft-discussed matchup with Westbrook.
"I don't really have a choice but to embrace it," Lillard said of the challenge. "That team is going to go as far as him and Paul George. … Our minds are made up that we're going to take that challenge, and our season is on the line, so that's probably how it looks different than it might look any other time."
Lillard has shrugged off the competitive nature of the matchup as a necessary evil, but the way the two play against and speak to each other on the court lends to a deeper truth. As a narrative, "Dame" versus Russ incites debate and excitement among NBA fans. Their history of trash talking and quality head-to-head performances makes for a dramatic spectacle within the prism of an already heated team matchup.
Westbrook's fiery personality and Lillard's me-against-the-world mentality have created a game within the game that manifests in sequences like the one in Tuesday's third quarter. There were plenty of others — not the least of which was a fight for the ball in the second quarter that resulted in Westbrook acting like he'd been hit in the face.
"You've got two pit bulls — two competitive guys who play hard," Blazers guard CJ McCollum said. "The stakes are high, so you're going to be competitive as long as this opportunity is there."
Lillard finished with 29 points on 10-of-21 shooting.
Westbrook posted 14 points, going 5 of 20 from the field.
In Game 1 on Sunday, Lillard outscored Westbrook 30-24, with Westbrook going 0 of 4 from 3-point distance.
Westbrook's shooting struggles on Tuesday were largely due to his inability to hit open shots. But many other misses came as a result of Lillard and the Blazers' defensive effort — particularly on the bull rush drives to the basket that have become Westbrook's trademark.
Lillard and his teammates have said Portland's All-Star doesn't get enough credit for his defense. That is one reason why he seems to relish matchups with elite point guards like Westbrook.
"Look, he's really competitive," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said of Lillard. "I think as a group obviously we're all trying — everybody's trying to play defense — but I think Dame is really focused on both ends of the floor. He knows how important it is at both ends of the floor. To be honest, Damian's defense has improved over time, and I think he's a much better defensive player than people give him credit for."
Westbrook's poor play motivates him as well, and the OKC star said as much after Tuesday's blowout loss.
"It starts with myself," he said. "I've got to play better, and tonight we lost, so I'm going to take full responsibility for tonight. The way I played was unacceptable, and I'll be better."
As Lillard, a passionate boxing fan, would tell anyone, crucial rounds remain between the two basketball prize fighters. While Lillard said he was happy about the 2-0 lead, he knows a series "doesn't start until you win a game on the road." The first road game for Portland is 6:30 p.m. PT Friday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Westbrook and the Thunder will return home licking their wounds and searching for a way to answer Lillard and Portland's momentum.
During a regular-season game against the Blazers in January, Westbrook appeared to use colorful language toward Lillard in describing how, in his view, he had been dominating Lillard "for years." Asked Tuesday night to describe his competitive relationship with Lillard, Westbrook offered few words.
"I don't really have too much to say about that," he said.