The Blazers are in complete control of their first-round series against the Thunder after an impressive 111–98 win Sunday night, giving Portland a 3–1 lead over OKC. The point guard beef that has defined the series greatly tilted into Damian Lillard’s favor after the victory. Neither Dame nor Russell Westbrook were at their best in Game 4. And yet, Lillard overcame some shooting struggles to score 24 points, including 15 in a pivotal third quarter. Westbrook, meanwhile, started hot but finished with only 14 points, scoring only one in the second half, while shooting 5-of-21 from the field.
Game 4’s juxtaposition of Lillard and Westbrook more or less tells the story of most of this series. Westbrook has had flashes of brilliance, but his fiery attitude has covered up another comically inefficient postseason, and the Thunder are now at risk of flaming out in the first round for the third straight season. Lillard, on the other hand, has been steadier, and his overall game is much more suited to withstand stretches of struggles. The way the guards games have diverged not only helps illustrate why Portland is up 3–1, but how they’ve each responded to their own embarrassing first-round losses last season.
In the Blazers’ four-game sweep at the hands of the Pelicans in 2018, Lillard was at his worst. His outside shot wasn’t falling, and he turned the ball over too often in the face of New Orleans’s aggressive traps. Portland was bad on both ends of the floor in that loss, not really being able to match up with the Pels’ smaller, more nimble lineups. A year later, Lillard has improved across the board. His field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, and points per game are all significantly higher than they were in the sweep, Lillard didn’t magically turn into a bad player against the Pelicans, and he hasn’t become a perfect one against the Thunder, but after back-to-back postseason sweeps, at the very least Lillard’s focus and commitment to his craft has led to tangible success.
The same can’t be said for Westbrook. For the third straight year, Westbrook is shooting under 40% from the field in the playoffs, as well as under 31% from three. (He shot a robust 30.7% against the Jazz last season.) In Game 4, an obviously critical game for the Thunder, Russ attempted only three shots in the paint, all of which he missed. Westbrook’s 18 other field-goal attempts were all jumpers, mostly of the stepback or pull-up variety. It’s maddening to see Russ, with his season on the line, resort to his worst habits when his team needs him the most. For three straight years now, Westbrook has tried to be a player he isn’t. And instead of cutting all the dead weight from his game, Russ seems hellbent on proving everyone wrong every time he pulls up for another ill-advised shot. Expecting him to change at this point would be foolish—though the game’s elite (like James Harden!) often build off their playoff failures—and that’s where things get scary for the Thunder.
It would be too simplistic to boil Portland vs. Oklahoma City down to Dame vs. Russ. The Blazers are a better constructed team, with more depth, more shooting, and crucially, a healthier pair of stars. But both PDX and the Thunder are locked in to the current cores, and the Blazers suddenly have a much more appealing future. Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has a stubborn leader who refuses to excise the worst parts of his game, and a front office that deserves its fair share of blame for routinely failing to build a modern roster that complements its stars.
Twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern. The Blazers responded to two straight first-round sweeps with a much better performance the third time around. Maybe it was a lucky draw for Portland, but the Blazers are at least seeing some dividends from their decision to keep their roster largely intact, while nailing moves on the margins (like Seth Curry and Enes Kanter.) On the other side of the coin, The Thunder are headed for their third straight first-round defeat against an opponent that seems more realistically suited for long-term success, while their unquestioned leader keeps making the same mistakes over and over again.
OKC isn’t done yet. Maybe Westbrook and Paul George have the ability to lead a comeback from down 3–1. But that would almost certainly require Russ to become a player he hasn’t been the last three years, one hell-bent on creating shots at the rim and getting rid of all the useless jumpers that create worthless possessions. The best players—and the best teams—make the changes necessary to get over their playoff failures. That’s what Portland and Damian Lillard have done to put themselves on the brink of the second round. It’s not a huge step, but at least it’s progress. The same can’t be said for Russ and the Thunder.