So this is what it’s like, Portland, to be enough. To be validated. To lead a series 2-0 for the first time in five years, and to do so with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and no other star, a duo that has long faced skepticism in—and in the aftermath of—the playoffs. Not to get ahead of myself: No, the Blazers have not advanced to the second round yet. After beating the Thunder 114-94 on Thursday, they’re still a minimum of two games away. Pitted against another two-star team that’s falling short, Portland is, for once, the organization playing up to its potential.
McCollum and Lillard combined for 62 points, 11 assists, 12 rebounds, four steals, two blocks, and just one foul. They sunk more 3s (Lillard shot 4-for-8; McCollum 3-for-7) than OKC did as a team (five), including McCollum’s buzzer-beating trey to close the half, which seemed like the turning point in the game. With five seconds left, Lillard drove right, losing Dennis Schröder along the way, and curled under the basket, drawing the attention of all five defenders. He shot the rock out to McCollum, who was waiting on the perimeter with no one but a leaping Steven Adams to try to close him out. Paul George, McCollum’s defender, slipped watching Lillard whip the ball around. It was like watching two guys hustle five in a pick-up game in real time:
Of course, Portland is playing at this level because of more than just two guys. The Blazers don’t have Golden State depth, Toronto depth, or even full-health Denver depth; what Portland has is a fairly decent group that’s capable of enhancing its two premier players. Seth Curry is a go-to spot-up shooter—he went 3-for-4 from deep—with both Lillard and McCollum on the floor; he can play backup in their absence. Mo Harkless added 14 points; Enes Kanter, who regressed to his mean because of early foul trouble after a huge Game 1 against his former team, contributed six points and five boards in 20 minutes.
Compared to Oklahoma City’s help, Portland’s looked pristine. The Thunder’s prevailing, season-long issue is a lack of shooting; against the Blazers, they shot 17.9 percent from deep. OKC has no perimeter threat without George fully healthy—he was icing his right shoulder before the game, and though he hasn’t verbally indicated anything is wrong, his shooting numbers say enough.
Throughout this season, the Thunder were regarded as a more legitimate threat to the Warriors than the Blazers ever were. Even before Jusuf Nurkic’s season-ending leg injury in March, Portland seemed like it needed another piece to truly compete. Its first-round sweeps in 2018 and 2017 were damning evidence.
But try telling Lillard that this team couldn’t compete in the postseason. He’s been outspoken about Portland’s chances against Western Conference teams—including Golden State—for two years. In 2017, Lillard went on the record saying the Blazers could beat the Warriors just weeks before the Warriors ousted them. The following summer, Lillard argued with a reporter on Twitter who suggested that the organization would be better off waiting out Golden State, that there was no chance for the Blazers during Steph and Co.’s reign of terror in Oakland.
Portland is a ways away from its second-round matchup, let alone the Western Conference finals. At minimum, six games stand between the Blazers and the chance to even contend for Lillard’s vision. While it still seems like a fantasy everywhere except Dame’s head, it’s an idea that’s never been closer to reality.