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Russell Westbrook is on the board.
The Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers has doubled as a grudge match between two All-Star point guards. Through two games, Damian Lillard had decidedly gotten the better of Westbrook, whose poor shot selection and forced aggressiveness contributed in part to Oklahoma City falling down 2-0 as the series shifted back home.
“The way I played was unacceptable, and I’m going to be better,” Westbrook said after Tuesday’s Game 2 loss in Portland after shooting an abysmal 5-of-20 from the field.
Well, he delivered on that promise Friday, giving the Thunder a new lease on life with a 33-point performance in a 120-108 win. He drilled four of his six three-pointers after only hitting one between the first two games. The rest of the Thunder followed suit, shooting 51.7 percent from beyond the arc after shooting below 20 percent in each of the first two games.
Beyond that, Westbrook provided the Thunder with both a stabilizing force and the kind of bravado worth rallying around. It wasn’t just how many shots he made (he was 11-of-22 from the field), it was when he made them. He knocked down big ones at key moments to stop various Blazers runs and extend Thunder leads.
After a couple of them, he made an exaggerated cradle-rocking motion, as if to put Lillard back in his place and reassert himself as the one in this matchup with the track record of winning on the big stage. Lillard claimed not to see this gesture, but it presaged his 25-point third-quarter scoring explosion, which kept Portland within range.
The Thunder needed Westbrook’s heroics to pull away, and they’ll need more of them Sunday and beyond. Concerns about Paul George‘s shoulder reemerged in a 3-of-16 Game 3 shooting display. For as much as George insists on not making excuses, it’s tough to ignore the signs that his body isn’t right or to assume he’ll be any more effective the rest of the way.
All year, as Westbrook endured one of his worst shooting seasons and navigated an at-times difficult transition to NBA middle age, George carried the Thunder at both ends. Now, with their season on the line, it falls once again on Westbrook to keep Oklahoma City in this series.
It would help if the Thunder role players made shots the way they did Friday. Jerami Grant came alive for 18 points, while Dennis Schroder added 17 off the bench. Even George, as badly as he shot from the field, lived at the foul line. It all added up to enough to fend off the Blazers down the stretch. But as with most things in Oklahoma City better or worse, everything starts and ends with Westbrook.
Westbrook has as much riding on this series as anybody. He hasn’t led the Thunder past the first round of the playoffs on his own, not since Kevin Durant left in 2016. He’s faced questions since his 2017 MVP campaign about whether his brash, uncompromising style can lead to winning. The addition of George—a versatile scorer who can do the heavy lifting on both sides of the ball—over the past two years has given him the ideal post-Durant running mate.
In the early part of this season, before George’s shoulder began bothering him, the Thunder had hit on a winning formula and a consistent identity. George could handle most of the scoring, leaving Westbrook to focus on being a distributor as his shooting took a dip.
They were flanked on the wing by rangy, athletic defenders like Grant and Terrance Ferguson and inside by dependable big man Steven Adams. They didn’t have much shooting, but they did just enough of everything else to be dangerous.
Now, with George’s health hovering over the Thunder, they’re back where they started. They’re looking to Westbrook to carry them, to do what he did Friday three more times while hoping their defense can do enough to slow down Lillard and CJ McCollum and their offense can finally figure out a way to play Enes Kanter off the court.
Even in their victory at home, both of those things proved difficult. Lillard made his shots, especially in that spectacular third quarter; Westbrook just made more of them, and at the right times. The Thunder got more out of their role players than the Blazers. Nothing about Oklahoma City’s formula has changed, but Westbrook performed when it mattered.
Friday’s game was the kind of performance Westbrook desperately needed to salvage what has been a rough go of things in the last three postseasons. If there were any questions about whether he can still carry the Thunder in a must-win game, the answer is yes, at least some of the time. Whether he can do it again, three times in the next four games, against the best version of Lillard we’ve seen in the playoffs, is another matter entirely.
This matchup has been emotionally charged on both sides as the Blazers and Thunder search for the kind of postseason breakthrough that has eluded both franchises in recent years. Lillard already put his stamp on the series, and now Westbrook has put his cards on the table and shown he’s not going to let the Thunder go away quietly.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter, @highkin.