The Portland Trail Blazers ended the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season in Game 5 on Tuesday night at the Moda Center. With the Thunder leading by 15 points midway through the fourth quarter, the half court offense stalled, free throws weren’t converted, and costly turnovers allowed Portland to get right back into it. The game was tied with under a minute to go and Paul George’s elbow jumper put OKC up two with 39 seconds to go. But Damian Lillard had the last laugh — first with a reverse layup to tie it, later with a 37-foot step-back three to win the game at the buzzer. Lillard was masterful, scoring 50 points as he was forced to carry the load due to CJ McCollum’s early foul trouble. George led the way for the Thunder with 36 points, and Westbrook recorded a triple-double — but his decision making down the stretch will give his detractors plenty to pick apart over the coming days.
The first was filled with plenty of fireworks as the Thunder had, without question, their best offensive quarter of the series. George made his first six shots, totaling 15 points in the opening frame. Billy Donovan made a slight tweak to his defensive coverage, shifting Jerami Grant on Portland’s bigs to try and better combat Lillard’s pick-and-roll, but Lillard was unstoppable, scoring 19 points in the quarter. Oklahoma City caught a break when CJ McCollum picked up his third foul at the 3:10 mark, forcing him to the bench. The Thunder shot a blistering 69.6 percent from the floor and led 37-29 after one.
For the second game in a row, George picked up his third foul in the second quarter, having to sit for the remainder of the half at the 5:54 mark with the Thunder leading by five. As we saw too often in this series, “Bad Russ” reared his ugly head in the second quarter. After starting the game 3-of-4 from the floor midway through the first, Westbrook missed a handful of point-blank attempts at the rim, finishing the half with yet another inefficient 5-of-15 performance. Lillard picked up right where he left off, scoring 34 points on an incredible 12-of-18 shooting, including 6-of-9 from deep. Westbrook had no answer whatsoever for Lillard’s dribble penetration, allowing him to get to whatever spot he wanted.
For the third time out of the last four games in this series, the Blazers closed the second quarter on an 11-2 scoring run, retaking the lead after Seth Curry’s triple with 1:42 to go. With the Thunder having the final possession, Donovan reinserted George and his three fouls and he responded by hitting a step back three at the buzzer, closing the Thunder deficit to 61-60 at the break. On most nights, George’s 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting from the floor would be eye-popping, but Lillard stole the show with 34 points at the break.
Lillard resumed his dominance by opening the second half with a deep 32-footer on Portland’s first possession. Terrance Ferguson’s first shot attempt resulted in OKC retaking the lead after his three from the top of the key, but a pair of ugly Thunder turnovers midway through the quarter allowed Portland to regain the lead following Aminu’s corner three. The Blazers used some more misses from Westbrook to string together a 14-2 scoring run after Dame’s three put the Blazers up nine at the 3:29 mark. With the Moda Center rocking, the Thunder responded by closing the quarter on a 15-2 run following a pair of buckets from Westbrook. The Thunder led 90-86 headed to the fourth.
Westbrook made the Thunder’s first two shots to start the fourth, with Dennis Schroder’s three and jumper in the paint putting the Thunder up double digits with 8:33 to go. Another three by Schroder gave the Thunder a 15 point advantage as OKC was in the midst of a 30-6 scoring run after falling behind by nine late in the third quarter. The game appeared to be in hand with the Thunder holding a commanding lead midway through the fourth, but Oklahoma City’s longtime issues showed up at the most inopportune time. Westbrook missed an elbow jumper, creating a transition step back three for Lillard, and just like that the Blazers trailed by only five just under five minutes remaining. Westbrook responded with a nice catch-and-shoot three, putting the Thunder back up eight. With the Thunder leading by six and just over two minutes left, George missed both free throws, and Westbrook was called for an offensive foul on the Thunder’s next trip down. McCollum’s tough runner off the glass closed the gap to four, and Maurice Harkless went to the line after Westbrook’s loose ball foul following Grant’s first miss of the night. The Thunder led by two with 1:22 to go and Donovan called a timeout.
Instead of advancing the ball, the Thunder took it from underneath their own basket, and George got caught in a trap and turned it over, resulting in a long two for McCollum to tie at 113 with under a minute to go. George atoned for the mishap by hitting a beautiful step back jumper from the elbow, putting the Thunder up two with 39 seconds remaining. Following Portland’s timeout, Lillard attacked the paint, leaving Schroder in the dust and converting the reverse layup to tie it up at 115.
With George clearly being the hot-hand tonight, Westbrook, as we’ve seen for essentially all of the past decade, decided to take matters into his own hands. Westbrook forced a contested shot at the rim, and the Blazers secured the rebound. Terry Stotts decided against calling a timeout, instead letting his All-Star point guard run the show. With the clock approaching zero and All-NBA defender George on him, Lillard stepped back near the “Moda Center” logo and heaved a 37-footer — hitting nothing but net as the buzzer rang. He then gave a subtle wave to the Thunder bench before being mobbed by his teammates.
Westbrook: The Brodie recorded a triple-double, but his decision making down the stretch will be the story in this one. George was cooking, yet it was Westbrook who jacked up eight shots in the fourth, compared to George’s three. This has been an issue for Russ throughout his career and tonight will be more ammunition for the national media. If Russ can’t hand the keys of the franchise over to George in the final moments of Game 5, will he ever be capable of ceding it? The fate of the franchise certainly depends on it, because this version of Thunder basketball is clearly broken.
George: PG saved his best game of the series for last and, boy, was it needed. George was remarkable from the opening tip, hitting his first six shots as he was in a groove throughout. George scored 36 points on 14-of-20, including 3-of-8 from deep and 5-of-8 from the line. The turnovers and foul trouble hurt the Thunder, but this was the Paul George we were accustomed to seeing in the first half of the season. Personally, I’d like to see George demand his touches down the stretch of a win-or-go-home game for the Thunder. Westbrook certainly plays a role in that, but George has earned every right at this point to tell Westbrook to take a back seat.
Dame: The Blazers were forced to be without McCollum after he picked up his third foul late in the first quarter, but Lillard had no problem shouldering the load. His 34 first-half points were a Blazers record and his walk-off 37-footer was one that will live in the NBA All-Timer archives, and rightfully so. Lillard scored 50 points on 17-of-33 shooting, including 10-of-18 from beyond the arc. It felt eerily similar to Klay Thompson’s 11 three-pointers in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Finals — not much the Thunder can do when a player gets in that kind of a groove.
Billy D: The Thunder Pitchfork Brigade will be calling for Billy Donovan to lose his job and I think that’s an irresponsible take. Donovan is a quality coach who allows General Manager Sam Presti’s ball club to operate at the vision he deems fit. I applauded Donovan when he called a first quarter timeout midway through the Thunder possession when it was obvious that Westbrook wasn’t running the offense. Westbrook has to be better, plain and simple. The half court offense’s lack of execution is a direct reflection on Westbrook, not Donovan.