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  • The Thunder bounced back in Game 3 to defeat the Blazers and win their first game of the series, as the intense rivalry between point guards Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard continued.
By Rohan Nadkarni
April 20, 2019

Thanks in large part to a barrage of threes, the Thunder finally drew blood in their first-round series against the Blazers on Friday, securing a 120–108 win in Oklahoma City. Portland still leads the best-of-seven standoff 2-1, but the talent on the court—and the intensity of the dislike on both sides—appears to be the trappings of what could be a seven-game classic.

The Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard battle continued, and it continued in earnest. The pressure was on Westbrook to deliver after he had a stinker in Game 2. The 2017 MVP scored only 14 points in the second contest in Portland, shooting a miserable 5-of-20 from the field, and a bricky 1-of-6 from three. Russ responded with aplomb in Game 3. He scored 33 points, adding 11 assists and five rebounds for good measure. He shot 50% from the field, and 66.7% from three. His performance was enough to overcome 32 points from Lillard, who had a monster third quarter but couldn’t regain his rhythm in the fourth.

The back and forth between Westbrook and Lillard has reached an absurd level of entertainment. Early in the third, Russ bullied Dame in the post, scoring and drawing an and-one, before hitting his rock-the-baby celebration and loudly proclaiming that Lillard was too small. Dame went to work after Westbrook’s theatrics. He finished the third quarter with 25 points, relentlessly attacking the rim and adding some pull-up threes. It’s not just talk and histrionics—both players are backing themselves up with buckets.

The dislike between these teams is palpable. Everyone is getting in on the action, holding their poses after a made three a second longer, or flexing with extra purpose after an offensive putback. (Paul George dunking as time expired in the fourth was also a nice touch.) It’s fun as hell to watch, and it’s led by two explosive point guards who are just as happy to trade trash talk as they are scores. No other first-round series can match this level of intensity. And the teams are evenly matched! Portland may have jumped out to a two-zip lead, but as OKC showed Friday, the Blazers aren’t going to break the Thunder’s spirit very easily.

How did OKC actually manage to win? Simply, the Thunder finally hit shots. After shooting a pathetic 10-of-61 from three over the course of two games in Portland, OKC shot 15-of-29 from beyond the arc back home. Westbrook had an efficient night, and it certainly helped—especially while George struggled mightily from the field—but Friday’s success belonged equally to the Thunder’s role players. Jerami Grant didn’t hit a single three the first two games of the series—he shot 4-of-5 from downtown in Game 3. Terrence Ferguson connected on three of his four threes after hitting only two in Portland. With OKC’s catch-and-shoot game finally coming alive, the Thunder were able to build a double-digit lead coming out of halftime, one that was too much for Portland to overcome.

Westbrook desperately needed a night like Friday. He hasn’t exorcized his postseason demons, but he proved he could still carry OKC in a must-win game. Russ has been terribly inefficient in the playoffs since 2016, and this season the Thunder have operated best when George was at the top of his game. PG did some work at the free-throw line in Game 3, but his 3-of-16 shooting night meant there was even more pressure on Westbrook to deliver in a must-win game.

Russ came through, both with a fiery attitude and a jump shot that finally looked reliable—though counting on it long term is a still a dicey proposition. Late in the fourth, Westbrook was jawing at Lillard while dribbling on the left wing, and ended that possession by hitting a three. Russ stayed in the backcourt to talk trash and pound his chest, a show of pride that seemed as though it had as much to do with Lillard as it did his own internal playoff struggles. An NBA player can’t solve all his problems in a Game 3 performance in the first round, but Russ passed a huge test Friday.

The beauty of this series is that both teams will respond in Game 4. Westbrook will only be emboldened by finally one-upping Lillard. Meanwhile, Dame will be hungry to regain the upper hand in this growingly personal tete-a-tete. The dislike, the stakes of this series, and the talent on both rosters have led to some outstanding competition on the court. Sunday can’t come soon enough.

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