The sixth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder were such a popular pick to upset the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs that it’s hardly fair to even call them the underdogs. Only one of ESPN’s panel of 20 analysts picked the Blazers to take the series, and the thinking was fairly uniform; not only would the Blazers have to rely on the sieve-like Enes Kanter, they would have to contend with a fearsome OKC defense while also struggling to contend with Russell Westbrook’s game-breaking athleticism and Paul George’s shot-making abilities. Through two losses to the Blazers, Westbrook hasn’t looked up to the task.
Westbrook has never been even an average three-point shooter, but his inability to even get Portland to respect his shot is gumming up the Thunder’s already sticky offense. Defenders have spent all season sagging off Westbrook, and he responded by shooting 29 percent from three, while also shooting from deep at the second highest rate of his career. He’s just 1-for-10 this series from long distance, and 13-for-37 overall. With Jerami Grant and Dennis Schroeder also struggling (they’re a combined 0-for-16), the onus falls on Paul George to spread the offense out all by himself, which is too much to ask.
Last night, Westbrook had one of the worst playoff games of his career. He finished with 14 points and a game-low -27 in 37 minutes. Portland clearly didn’t respect his shot, and what’s more concerning, they didn’t mind going right at him on offense. Westbrook isn’t solely responsible for stopping Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but the Thunder did sweep the Blazers in the regular season, and they seemed to have a decent idea of how to at least make Portland’s star guards work. So far in this series, the pair have a combined average of 58 points per game on 45.5 three-point percentage. That speaks to a lack of pressure. Here’s Westbrook watching Lillard telegraph to the whole arena that he’s going to pull up before letting him pull up.
Westbrook and Lillard famously don’t get along, and through two games, Lillard has clearly gotten the better of the matchup. He’s not only outshooting Westbrook, he’s out-hustling and out-defending him and generally being a more effective pest. Westbrook owned up to it after the game, saying, “The way I played was unacceptable.”
This Thunder team is weirdly assembled and not exactly built to score 130 points per game, but they need Westbrook to do more if they’re going to make this a series. The whole offense relies on Westbrook creating shots for others, and if he’s not able to start doing that once the series moves to Oklahoma City, it’ll be a long summer.