January 22, 2019, 11:15 pm
We’ve heard it time and time again, dating back years: The Blazers won’t go anywhere meaningful with both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum leading the way. While that longstanding assumption by team skeptics has grown increasingly popular this season, the merits of another likelihood seem worth exploring after Portland’s hard-fought 123-114 loss to Oklahoma City on Tuesday.
Can the Blazers really win a championship if Lillard is their best player?
That’s no slight to Lillard, who’s enjoying arguably the finest season of his career and was stellar against the Thunder, finishing with 34 points, five rebounds, eight assists, and five steals on 12-of-24 shooting. He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, too, helping Portland come within a possession of Oklahoma City on multiple occasions, only for the home team to extend its lead immediately thereafter courtesy of swarming defense and star-level offense.
Paul George, unfortunately for the Blazers, provided plenty of both for the Thunder from the opening tip in yet another performance that strengthens his burgeoning MVP case. George scored 36 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished four assists, and swiped five steals on Tuesday, getting whatever he wanted on one end and consistently disrupting Portland’s flow on the other. He had a pair of pick-sixes in the fourth quarter alone, when he made all six of his 15 total free-throw attempts to keep the Blazers at bay. George went 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, too, and split time guarding Lillard and C.J. McCollum while also mucking up the action as a help defender.
It was an utterly dominant individual showing, one that forcefully conveyed the impact of a superstar being able to affect the game on both ends of the floor – and served as a reminder of Lillard’s inherent limits. To be clear, Lillard has made subtle strides on defense in recent years, to the point that he’s certainly no longer the sieve he was early in his career. Lillard is smart, has quick hands, and for the most part plays with the engagement and intensity necessary to help his team contain opposing point guards. But compared to George? Lillard, even playing at his defensive peak, will never be able to replicate the influence of a defender capable of not just checking four positions, but wreaking tangible havoc in the process.
The lack of a two-way superstar is one most teams face, obviously, and probably not the issue that’s most pressing to the Blazers. Present and long-term improvement all across the roster takes precedence over anything else right now, and their supporting cast didn’t show much of any on the second leg of a tough road back-to-back.
McCollum exploded in the third quarter, scoring 21 points and netting five three-pointers. He finished the game 31 points and a career-high tying seven triples. Jusuf Nurkic had 22 points and 15 rebounds, seven of which came via his teammates’ misses – and accounted for over a third of Portland’s season-best 20 offensive rebounds, the biggest reason the road team was able to stay close throughout.
Otherwise, there wasn’t a standout individual for the Blazers. Al-Farouq Aminu had 13 rebounds and four assists, but went just 1-of-7 from the field and missed all five of his three-point attempts. Moe Harkless went scoreless in 18 minutes. Jake Layman‘s cutting ability was neutralized by Oklahoma City, and he was 0-of-4 from three. Seth Curry was out-classed athletically on both sides of the ball. Meyers Leonard and Evan Turner played with their typical brands of physicality, but didn’t do enough to keep Portland’s bench afloat.
The Blazers didn’t have much business winning this game. They shot 10-of-36 from beyond the arc and committed 19 turnovers, which led to 29 Thunder points. Absent a strong performance from the bench, Portland will always struggle to beat a quality foe on the road when shooting that poorly from deep and coughing up the ball at such a debilitating frequency. George and Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, combined for 65 points, 18 rebounds, and 18 assists, and four other Oklahoma City players reached double-figures.
Both teams needed this game. They entered Tuesday’s action in lock step in the Western Conference standings, with mere percentage points separating them between third and fourth place. The Thunder lead the Blazers 2-0 in the season series now, with two games left to play, meaning Terry Stotts’ team must beat Billy Donovan‘s both times and substantially improve its record in the northwest division for Portland to win a theoretical tie-breaker over Oklahoma City. Clearly, there’s a lot of work left to be done for the Blazers.
Unfortunately, though, no matter how Portland fares over the season’s last three months, it won’t have a player who can dominate a basketball game in all facets the way George did on Tuesday.