Russell Westbrook has never been afraid to tempt fate, but in Game 3 of the Thunder’s first-round playoff series against the Trail Blazers, that bravado nearly cost him. In the third quarter of Friday night’s must-win contest, Westbrook drove to the hoop, drew an and-1 foul on Damian Lillard, shouted at the crowd, and then pantomimed rocking a baby while yelling, “He’s too small.” It was typical Westbrook: When the Thunder lose, his lash-outs induce eye rolls; when they win, like they did Friday, 120-108, they’re OKC’s rocket fuel.
Lillard immediately responded with an eruption of his own—the Blazers guard put up 23 points in under 10 minutes of game time and 25 points in the third quarter alone; he hit deep 3s like they were practice shots, and sank tough layups around a comatose Steven Adams. What was once a double-digit Thunder lead evaporated. But Dame Time came a bit too early in the Central time zone; Westbrook, however, saved his best for last.
In the fourth quarter, Westbrook countered Lillard’s 3-ball with brute force—driving, dishing, looking for contact almost as much as for the basket itself. You want to say Westbrook’s performance was fueled by the desperation of an 0-2 series hole, but he often plays like this regardless of the situation; the difference was the shots were going in, whether Russ was shooting it or setting up the shot. Westbrook finished with 33 points on 11-for-22 shooting, five rebounds, and 11 assists. It wasn’t a triple-double, but his line was slightly better than Lillard’s (32 points, four rebounds, six assists, 10-of-21 shooting). After calling his Game 2 performance “unacceptable,” Westbrook shook off his season-long shooting struggles and made four of his six 3s—his best shooting performance from deep this season with at least five attempted 3s.
OKC as a whole shot an uncharacteristic but much-needed 51.7 percent from 3, without much help from Paul George. The MVP candidate was 2-for-7 from deep; the rest of the Thunder roster, however, was 13-for-15. Terrance Ferguson hit three, and Jerami Grant buried four—three of them assisted by Westbrook.
George, whose entire right shoulder is covered with athletic tape, continues to look hampered by a shoulder injury. He got to the line 17 times and made 14 of his shots there, but he finished an abysmal 3-of-16 from the field. OKC has relied on George all season. In their best of times, he carried the offense, the defense shut down the opponent, and Westbrook filled in the gaps. But with George struggling, the Thunder have turned back to their former MVP to save them. It didn’t work the first two games in Portland—Westbrook was shooting 35 percent and had made just one of 10 3-point attempts entering the night. Worse, Lillard went out of his way to call out the Thunder guard’s struggles, clapping at one of Russ’s misses in Game 2 and then drilling a deep 3 in front of him on the other end.
In Game 3, Westbrook was the one showing up Lillard. After hitting his fourth 3 to all but seal the deal, he paused before getting back on defense and directed a barrage of words toward Lillard. (Dennis Schröder also tapped his wrist at one point to mock Lillard’s “Dame Time” celebration.) Westbrook and Lillard continued jawing back and forth through the final minutes, even when Lillard was on the bench.
What’s ironic is that this series may come down to the players around Westbrook and Lillard. For all of Lillard’s big individual numbers in Game 1, Enes Kanter’s 20 points and 18 rebounds were just as crucial. And while Westbrook seized the moment back on his home court, Grant’s shooting like the player OKC thought it was getting in Patrick Patterson added a much-needed new dimension. Will OKC’s role players be able to hit shots away from home? Can Portland survive with a center rotation of Kanter, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard to fill the gap left by Jusuf Nurkic’s injury? Will George ever get to full strength? Plenty of questions remain in the undercard matchups.
But as we wait for those answers, Russ vs. Dame will remain at center stage.