If coming into the first set of playoff games you’d circled a higher seed that needed to make a statement, you would have circled the Trail Blazers, who did make their statement Sunday with a 104-99 win over the Thunder at home. Portland was four wins better in the regular season, but Oklahoma City had won all four head-to-head meetings, and noting the ongoing layers of competitive heat between them, there was more than your typical “one at a time” onus packed into Game 1.
Damian Lillard opened the game with a deep three, closed it calmly at the free throw line and happily ushered the elephant from the room, snapping Portland’s 10-game playoff losing streak that dates back three years. The Blazers got confident, timely shot-making, with Lillard racking up 30 points, and a huge turn from Enes Kanter, whose 20 rebounds and 18 assists won the interior. They took a 14-point lead after one quarter and held fast.
Seven-game series, of course, are long and arduous, but context notwithstanding, Portland derived a little something extra from this one, a confidence boost in a series many have pegged them to lose, with history a factor. And having been swept out of the first round in consecutive seasons with in essence the same group, there is a sense that change could be brimming without different results. Whether a first-round series win will be enough isn’t quite the point at this stage. There’s some meaning behind a cohesive win like this against a team that, estimably, had the Blazers’ number.
Of course, Portland will need to keep holding home court, but after one game (remember, one game), this certainly feels like one of the better first-round pairings. The jawing was more muted this time around, and none of the superstars actually shot that well. Oklahoma City’s pairing of Russell Westbrook (triple double, ho hum) and Paul George (who shot 8-of-24 while attempting 15 threes) were slowed effectively by Portland’s approach. The Blazers have to do it by committee, but as constituted, they have the bodies to handle the physicality of postseason play. Whether Kanter continues to make the difference inside against his former team (particularly with Jusuf Nurkic out) will be critical. Other than Steven Adams, the Thunder aren’t countering with a ton of heft up front. In the end, it still comes back to Lillard, who still probably doesn’t get enough credit for rising to the occasion, but may earn it as this series rolls on.
Game 2 is Tuesday.