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KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Blazers answer skeptics with their quieting of Thunder

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard gets the Portland crowd fired up during Game 2 of the playoff series with Oklahoma City.OKLAHOMA CITY — The pillars of the franchise stood together at midcourt Sunday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena in the closing seconds, Game 4 of the Trail Blazers' first-round playoff series with Oklahoma City already in hand.

Afterward, CJ McCollum didn't want to reveal the nature of his discussion with Damian Lillard. But in the spirit of Ronald Reagan's sportscasting career — no, I wasn't alive back then — I can pretty much recreate the discourse.

"Nice job, brother," Lillard said, shaking hands with McCollum. "You were good tonight when we needed you."

"You, too, boss man," McCollum said as Lillard put his arm around his teammate. "Maybe we can play together after all."

Lillard, extending his hand one more time: "Stay focused. We know what to do."

McCollum, accepting the handshake: "One more to go. It's about us; not them."

It was all about the Blazers as they snared the 111-98 victory that pushed the Thunder within a game of elimination in the best-of-seven series.

"We're down 3-1," coach Billy Donovan said as his Thunder looked at the possibility of its third straight NBA first-round ouster. "All we can do now is watch the (video), try to make some corrections and adjustments and get ready for Game 5. I mean, that's really all we can do."

That will come Tuesday night at Moda Center, where 20,000 partisans will be ready to blow the roof off the arena as the Blazers attempt to close out the series and move on to the Western Conference semifinals.

McCollum scored 27 points, providing a smorgasbord of clutch shots and plays in a 13-point fourth quarter.

Lillard collected 24 points and eight assists and made the third quarter his own for the second straight game, going for 15 points in the period.

But each of the Portland starters made major contributions.

Al-Farouq Aminu came through with 19 points, sinking 4 of 9 3-point attempts, to go with nine rebounds. Moe Harkless contributed 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Enes Kanter had eight points and 10 rebounds and outplayed OKC's Steven Adams in the post.

The Thunder shot only .375 from the field as the Blazers held them below 100 points for the third time in the series.

"We need one more game like that," Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

Despite the Blazers finishing as the No. 3 seed in the West, most of the pundits gave the nod in this series to the sixth-seeded Thunder, who had swept four games from Portland in the regular season. That put a little chip on the shoulder of the Blazers going into this series, adding to the boulder already perched there after being swept by New Orleans in the first round a year ago.

"You don't just become the third seed luckily, especially two times in a row," Lillard said. "Last year, our performance wasn't great in the playoffs, but we showed a lot by backing it up by getting the third seed again.

"We don't focus on our doubters; we focus on ourselves. We've moved on, and we're having a better run this time. We just have to finish it."

Paul George came up big for the Thunder with 32 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. But OKC's other star, Russell Westbrook, belly flopped after a good start.

The high-energy point guard made five of his first 11 shots from the field, the last one a 26-foot 3-pointer that gave OKC a 46-39 lead with 2:31 left in the first half. At that point, he was playing to the crowd like Brock Lesnar.

But then it went sour. Westbrook — drawing inspiration from the nearby Bricktown district — missed his final 10 shots to finish 5 for 21, going 0 for 7 for the second half. He wound up with 14 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in his 40 minutes.

The seven-point lead proved the high-water mark for the Thunder. The Blazers closed the half on an 11-0 run to go into the locker room ahead 50-46. With Lillard knocking down three straight treys at one point, Portland expanded its lead to 79-60 late in the third quarter.

OKC drew to within nine points early in the final period, but McCollum bagged a pair of big 3's, the latter getting the difference up to 87-70 with 9:28 left.

The Thunder didn't quit, climbing to within 101-94 with 1:31 to play, but the Blazers went 6 for 6 at the foul line the rest of the way, more than enough to ice the verdict.

There had been plenty of extracurricular activity involved in OKC's 120-108 Game 3 triumph, including Westbrook trash-talking and rockin' the baby, Dennis Schroder Lillard-timing and George after-hours dunking. Stotts and Lillard made sure the Blazers weren't going to get caught up in any shenanigans Sunday night.

"There wasn't any of the peripheral stuff," Stotts said. "I liked the way we approached the game. We played the way we needed to play."

"We had a business-like mentality," Lillard said. "We said for Game 4, we're not talking to nobody but ourselves. Referees can call it the way they want to call it; we're just going to worry about ourselves. We're going to play hard, stay together, and whenever the crowd gets into it, just keep doing what we do and come out on top. I was proud we were able to stick to that."

There wasn't a lot the Thunder could say afterward.

Westbrook took umbrage at the suggestion the Blazers took the drive away from him, in that he scored only three baskets in the key area.

"It wasn't taken away," he said. "I get to the paint any time I want, but I always make the right play. When I'm in the paint, I find guys on the perimeter. My job is to make sure other guys get the basketball.

"I didn't get to shoot a layup every single time, but I'm in the paint all game. Shot attempts is not the only thing I can do to make sure I'm in the teeth of the defense, to kick it out for open shots."

Now the Thunder's mission seems overwhelming: Win three straight games, two of them on the road, to advance.

"Regardless or what the series is, it's always one game at a time," George said. "Play one game. Give everything in one game, and go to the next. We're down 3-1, but we have to take it one game at a time."

And what will be the key for the Thunder?

"Points," George said. "Score more points. Honestly, that's what we have to do. Defensively, we're going to be locked in. We'll get in the flow. We'll get in the rhythm. The ball will find its way to the hole. We just have to get better."

That will be difficult to do in the unfriendly confines of Moda Center. The close-out game is usually a tough one to come by, though, and the Thunder will go down swinging, if at all.

And what about that, CJ McCollum?

"We're not worried about the Thunder," McCollum said. "We're worried about the Blazers."

Next question?

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@kerryeggers


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