Dunk you very much
OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook regained his mojo and the Oklahoma City Thunder reasserted themselves in their first-round playoff series with the Trail Blazers with a 120-108 Game 3 victory Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
But the Thunder's final basket may be one they live to regret.
With OKC's win safely tucked away, Portland rookie Anfernee Simons missed a driving layup in the final seconds. Thunder reserve Raymond Felton rebounded and pushed the ball ahead to teammate Paul George, who went in for a pirouette dunk as time expired.
It was a bush-league, rub-their-nose-in-dog-turd move by an All-Star player who should have known better. Players with any class dribble the clock out in those situations.
Portland's Evan Turner confronted Felton at midcourt, asking, "What, we're just dunking at the end of the game? What's that about?" Referee Tony Brown stepped between them, and the players dispersed to their respective locker rooms.
"I was more shocked than anything," Turner said afterward. "Everybody knows you just don't do that. I guess (George) felt it set the tone. They're down 2-1, but they've got this edge in a sense."
George's show of disrespect didn't go unnoticed by Turner's teammates, either.
"I'm of the belief it's an unwritten rule that you do not do that, period," Meyers Leonard said.
"Typically, people say you don't do stuff like that, but honestly, I couldn't care less," Damian Lillard said. "The game had been decided. If it makes you feel more dominant or better, then it's all good."
When I asked OKC coach Billy Donovan about it, he played dumb.
"(The Blazers) probably shot a shot close to, whatever it was, 19 seconds (left)," said Donovan, who wouldn't have found fault with George or Westbrook had they mooned the crowd at game's end. "And then Paul went in and he dunked it. So I think both teams played the game all the way out."
It was George who hit two free throws with 19.2 seconds remaining, however. Simons' shot attempt was recorded with 3.3 ticks left. There was no excuse for George's indiscretion. He knew it, and Donovan knew it.
Was George trying to send a message? Was he trying to pad his stats? After all, he was 2 for 15 from the field before the uncontested jam at the end.
When I asked George about it at the postgame press conference, it seemed that Westbrook's smug attitude was contagious.
"Next question," George said.
The next question is, can the Thunder shoot like this again in Game 4?
After making 10 of 61 3-point shots (.164) in the first two games in Portland, OKC put some home cooking on the Blazers Friday night, sinking 15 of 29 attempts (.517) from deep. The Thunder also shot .481 from the field and made 31 of 39 shots from the foul line.
"That was the big difference in the game," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "They were due to have a good shooting game."
Westbrook was certainly due after shooting .351 from the field and making 1 of 10 shots from beyond the arc in the first two games.
"I'll take full responsibility," he said after Game 2. "The way I played was unacceptable, but I'll be better."
After a slow start, the Angry One was at his best Friday, scoring 33 points with 11 assists, sinking 11 of 22 shots from the field, 4 of 6 from 3-point range and 7 of 8 from the line.
"He was a man of his word," George said. "He led. We got behind him. He put us on his back."
Westbrook had plenty of help. George, who was 14 for 17 from the line, finished with 22 points, six rebounds and six assists. Forward Jerami Grant, who came in 0 for 8 from 3-point range in the series, scored 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting, including 4 for 5 from the 3-point line. Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder combined to hit 6 of 9 3-pointers.
"Those are shots that, in a lot of ways, we've been getting throughout the course of the last two games," Donovan said. "We haven't made them. I wanted to make sure I just kept encouraging our guys, because we were getting shots we can make."
The Thunder took advantage of poor shooting and 14 turnovers by Portland to take a 49-39 halftime lead and increased it to 61-45 early in the third quarter. Then Lillard — who had scored four points in the first half — erupted. Before he was through, Lillard had bombed in 25 points in a 43-point quarter for the Blazers.
When CJ McCollum knocked down a 27-foot pull-up 3, the game was tied 89-89 with 10:26 remaining, and the folks wearing orange T-shirts — all but a handful of the 18,203 in attendance — were growing uncomfortable.
Westbrook was really good in the fourth quarter, though, scoring 14 of his points while making 5 of 6 shots and both of his 3-point attempts. The Blazers, who hit only 1 of 6 shots from 3-point range in the final period, were unable to match.
No team has ever rallied from an 0-3 deficit to win an NBA playoff series, so it was all but an elimination game for the Thunder, and they played with desperation. It was a heated, physical affair, and one with some foolishness down the stretch as well.
As Westbrook's play picked up in the closing minutes, his trash-talking increased, and Lillard jawed back at him some. After a Lillard pass for Moe Harkless went out of bounds with OKC on top 115-103 inside the final two minutes, Schroder pointed to his left wrist a couple of times, mocking "Lillard Time."
"He said he'd seen Damian do it the first two games, and wanted to re-pay the favor," an Oklahoma City reporter said.
The Blazers didn't play poorly, shooting .470 from the field, making 12 of 31 3-pointers and winning the rebound battle 41-37. Lillard had 32 points and six assists. McCollum contributed 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Center Enes Kanter provided nine of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, hitting all four of his shots from the field in a 2-1/2 minute flurry that kept the Blazers in contention.
Stotts said the Blazers would work on defending the 3-point line better in Sunday night's Game 4. His players, though, are skeptical that the Thunder can match Friday's hot hand.
"It would have been foolish for us to think they wouldn't make shots, and they shot at a high clip," Al-Farouq Aminu said. "If they shoot like that every game, we're going to have our hands full. But it'll be hard to shoot like that all the time."
"They made some shots tonight," McCollum said. "A lot of guys hit 3's. They're going to make shots from time to time. Do we expect them to shoot 50 percent from 3? No. We also have to do a better job of running them off the line. We have to lock in on Paul George, but we can live with some of those other guys shooting 3's."
The Blazers wouldn't publicly admit to any extra motivation going into Sunday night's Game 4 because of George's end-of-game breach of etiquette.
"It's the playoffs," Aminu said. "No need for any extra anything. He did what he did. It's cool. If he didn't dunk it, we weren't going to come into the next game with nothing."
"Coming out mad or getting too deep into what they're doing is not going to help us," Turner said. "We're up 2-1 in the series. They responded tonight. Next game, it's our turn."
Or as Lillard summed it: "We go into Game 4 liking where we are."
And, if by chance the Blazers need an extra little edge, George provided it with his ill-advised flush. What goes around, comes around, and that one is still swirling around the toilet.