The path to NBA Finals clears for unified Trail Blazers
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Trail Blazers must be pinching themselves for the position they're in as they head into Game 3 of their best-of-seven first-round playoff series with Oklahoma City on Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Blazers aren't getting ahead of themselves — that's for fans and sportswriters to do — but the path to the NBA Finals seems doable.
By winning their final regular-season game against Sacramento, the Blazers vaulted ahead of Houston into the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, which put them on the opposite side of the bracket from defending champion and No. 1 seed Golden State in the West. What that means is the Rockets, not the Blazers, would face the Warriors should all advance to the conference semifinals.
Portland coach Terry Stotts would have preferred a first-round matchup with Utah but wound up with Oklahoma City, which had swept four games from the Blazers in the regular season. Portland was the better team in winning the first two games of the playoff series at Moda Center, in which the 3-point line was the biggest difference.
The Thunder misfired so often (51 of 61 times), coach Billy Donovan ought to consider mandatory fines for launching from beyond the arc.
But it's not just the Portland-OKC series that is falling the Blazers' way.
Golden State coughed up a 31-point lead to lose to the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night, in the process losing center DeMarcus Cousins for what it likely the rest of the playoffs with a torn quad muscle.
The Warriors prevailed in Thursday's Game 3 and probably will win the series, but would go into a West semifinals series (likely against the Rockets) with Andrew Bogut and Kevon Looney at center.
Golden State is still well-stocked with talent and has the championship pedigree, but the loss of Cousins removes the one player who can match up with Houston's Clint Cabela and Portland's trio of Enes Kanter, Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard in the middle.
If the Blazers are able to dispose of the Thunder, their West semifinal matchup would be with either Denver or San Antonio — and the No. 7 seed Spurs are in the driver's seat after grabbing a 2-1 lead with a 118-108 victory over the Nuggets on Thursday night.
The teams that have looked best in the West through Thursday action are Portland and Houston. Take Charles Barkley's word for it — the Blazers are for real. Before the playoffs began, we both picked them to get to the conference finals.
Let's reel it back for a minute, though, to the task at hand. On Thursday, oddsmakers were giving 7 1/2 points to OKC (if I were a gambler, I'd take some of that) in Game 3. The Thunder will be playing in the friendly confines of Chesapeake Energy Arena, where 18,203 denizens will be ready to rock the house if their team gets rolling. It's a wildly partisan home crowd, and it gets loud, but not to the extent of Moda Center. The Thunder were good on the home court this season (27-14), but the Blazers were better (32-9).
Curiously, Donovan doesn't quarrel with most of the 3-point shots taken by his players in the first two games.
"For the most part, we got off fairly decent looks, and we're going to have to take them," Donovan said after Game 2. "(The Blazers) protect the rim as the ball gets driven downhill, and you can't just force the ball in there. You have to keep the defense somewhat honest by making some of those shots."
The Thunder shot 3's well against Portland in the regular season (.391), but not so well against everybody (.348, 22nd in the league). George, who was 17 for 37 from distance against Portland in the season series, is the one OKC player the Blazers should run off the 3-point line. The rest of the Thunder should have to prove they can hit a few before the Blazers venture out to defend them that far from the basket.
"We have to keep shooting," George said. "We're going to make shots. Keep shooting. We missed shots, so what? Keep shooting."
Not under my watch, the Thunder wouldn't, at least from 3-point distance.
If I were Donovan, I'd feed the ball into center Steven Adams more and let him work on the block. I'd limit 3-point attempts and emphasize scoring in the paint with all of the OKC players, particularly Westbrook, who can slice through a defense and get to the basket with the best of anybody in the NBA.
Westbrook is an enigma, a tornado of a player who can fill up a stat line, but he is gripping when it comes to having to shoot from beyond 10 feet so far in the series. Damian Lillard is giving him plenty of space, and the Blazers are giving him help on Westbrook on the drive, which is precisely the right tactic against a guy who has so little confidence in his outside shot.
Westbrook had little to say to the media — he has little use for the Fourth Estate, even in the best of times — after Game 2. But he did address the subject of where the series stands, and his role in it.
"(The Blazers) won the first two home games," he said. "We were trying to steal one (in Portland). We'll stay with it. They're a great team. We're a great team. We have to have trust that we'll make shots and played on both sides (of the ball).
"We'll be all right. It starts with myself. I'll take full responsibility. The way I played was unacceptable, but I'll be better. I'm not worried one bit. My job is to come out and make sure we have a chance to win the game."
Westbrook, certainly, is worried more than a little bit. What was a semi-must-win situation in Game 2 becomes a seriously must-win scenario for the Thunder in Game 3. One would think they'll come out guns-a-blazin'.
But the Thunder don't seem to be in a good place psychologically right now. Part of that is the leadership provided by Westbrook and George, who have sulked their way through losses in the first two games. Contrast that with the attitude of Portland's on-court leaders, Lillard and CJ McCollum, who have lifted their teammates through difficult times and helped develop a camaraderie that is genuine throughout the locker room.
Maybe the Thunder will shake off their two worst 3-point shooting games of the season and light it up in Game 3. Maybe they'll get into transition and score enough easy baskets to pin the Blazers on their heels. A victory would put the Thunder right back in the series.
Or maybe they'll fall behind early, and their heads will begin to droop. If there's much esprit de corps among the troops on the OKC side, it's not been evident so far in the series. The Blazers, who appear to be the superior team, might run the Thunder out of their own building.
That's what's intriguing about the playoffs. Sometimes the only thing to expect is the unexpected.