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NBA Playoffs: As Thunder-Blazers series heats up with OKC’s Game 3 win, so does Damian Lillard-Russell Westbrook duel

Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook

We have a series between Portland and OKC, with the Thunder taking Game 3 at home 120-108 to trim Portland’s series lead to 2-1 going into Game 4 on Sunday. As the series intensifies, so does the marquee matchup between Thunder guard Russell Westbrook and Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard.

Give Westbrook credit, man. He was awful in Game 2 and took it on the chin. Said he had to play better. In Game 3, Russ finished with 33 points and 11 assists on 50 percent shooting, including an uncharacteristic 4 of 6 from 3-point range. It wasn’t just the line, either. Westbrook made big shots down the stretch to hold the Blazers at bay. When the Blazers had OKC’s lead down to five with seven and a half minutes to play, Westbrook sunk a 3 from the right corner. With OKC’s lead down to five again with just over three minutes to play, Westbrook backed Lillard into the paint and hit a little one-leg fall-away. For the official dagger, Westbrook banged this 3 over Lillard and let him know all about it:

This series has heated up right in line with the Westbrook-Lillard duel. Before the series started, Lillard said: “When Russ see me, and when I see him, it’s two dogs fighting,” and that has definitely been the case so far. These dudes are GOING AT one another. Lillard has been off the charts in his own right, and he was again in Game 3 despite the loss with 32 points and six assists. He did most of his damage with a 25-point third quarter, willing the Blazers back into a game that was getting away from them.

Think this thing isn’t personal between these two? Barely two minutes into the second half, Westbrook dropped an and-one bank shot on Lillard and stamped it with his his signature “rock the baby” routine while screaming “he’s too small.” Have a look:

At the point, the Thunder had a 15-point lead. Over the next nine minutes and change, Lillard hung 23 points on everyone in the building to cut OKC’s lead to four heading into the fourth.

So, yeah, it seems less than advisable to anger Damian Lillard. Then again, Westbrook ain’t exactly a lap dog. This is a heavyweight bout in every sense, and right now Lillard is getting the best of it, both individually and collectively as the Blazers are still in control of this series. But the margin definitely shrunk Friday night. OKC looked like a different team in Game 3. Funny how that happens when shots go in. In addition to Westbrook’s hot shooting, Jerami Grant, Terrance Ferguson and Dennis Schroder combined for 44 points on 9-of-12 3-point shooting. 

Schroder is a dependable scorer for the most part, but when Grant and Ferguson are hitting 3s, OKC becomes a borderline elite offense and Westbrook becomes the best version of himself, his relentless attack-and-kicks suddenly rewarded with buckets. Paul George struggled from the field but got himself to the line 17 times, 14 of which he made in finishing with 22 points, six assists and six rebounds. I’ve always thought the old “role players shoot better at home” adage was a little overused. But it was certainly true in Game 3 for OKC. 

On the other side, Enes Kanter, anyone? Yes, the Thunder zeroed in on him in the pick-and-roll as the second half wore on, but other than Lillard, Kanter was the biggest reason Portland crawled back in the game in the third quarter and was in position to take a 3-0 series lead. Kanter finished with 19 points and five boards. He had put-backs. Jump hooks. There were at least three possessions in that third quarter that he either saved or created with passes, boards or finishes underneath to keep Portland within striking distance as the Thunder were heating up and trying to pull away. 

When Portland signed Kanter after he was bought out by the Knicks in mid-February, I had a scout tell me “that could be a bigger pickup than people think.” I didn’t think much of it at the time. Of course, nobody knew Jusuf Nurkic was going to go down for the season, which has made the Kanter signing something not too far from a life-saver, but even independent of the Nurk injury, Kanter has been pretty big in this series. Again, he’s still exploitable on defense. But he gets buckets. He gets timely boards. He feels like something of a security blanket over possessions, either as an offensive rebounder or an outlet at the rim as Lillard and CJ McCollum draw all their attention. 

This series is as evenly matched as any of the first-rounders. We knew that coming in. I gave the Blazers the edge from the start and I still do, and the reason is pretty simple: They have Damian Lillard and the Thunder don’t. I believe Lillard is the best player in this series. But the Thunder have two guys in Westbrook and George who can be the best player in any given game. Westbrook, for his part, is taking this thing ultra personally, even more so than usual. That hasn’t always worked for him long-term. His emotions are perhaps his greatest strength and weakness. In Game 3, it was a strength. But Lillard isn’t going anywhere. And neither are the Blazers. 

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