(1) The First Quarter
Game 1 lived up to the hype in terms of dramatics. It had its ups and downs, complete with the customary Thunder comeback to make it interesting late, so it’s easy to forget the Trail Blazers led for all but 23 seconds on Sunday afternoon. The last lead OKC held was 5-4 early in the first quarter, and it got ugly quickly from there. Like, trailing by 19 points in the opening quarter ugly. Though the Thunder got within 1-point in the fourth, they never fully recovered from another slow start.
So, what happened? Well, a couple things — but it was mostly one thing happening over and over and over again. The Blazers shot 7-of-10 from three-point range in the first quarter, putting up 39 points and outscoring the Thunder by 14. It was a barrage that would make even the Warriors jealous.
Here’s Portland’s first quarter shot chart:
Three-pointers and shots at the rim — somewhere, Daryl Morey was smiling.
Damian Lillard scored 12 points in the first on 3-of-4 from deep, CJ McCollum added 11 points on 3-of-4, and those points in the paint? That was Enes Kanter (more on him later) — who put up 8 points and 8 rebounds in the opening frame. With 60 percent shooting as a team, very little was coming up empty for the Blazers. Even with hands in their faces, they made the Thunder pay on the scoreboard.
On the other end, the OKC offense was pure junk to open things up — shooting 34 percent from the field and going 0-of-6 from three. Westbrook and George were a combined 2-of-11 and OKC trailed by 14 after one. Things were halfway smoothed out afterward, but these slow starts could be fatal against a team that can produce points as quickly as Portland. The Thunder’s superstar duo needs to do a better job of setting the tone and pace in Game 2.
(2) Silver Linings
As I said above — things weren’t so bad after the first quarter! In fact, the Thunder looked so good defensively that it almost made up for an offense that never really found its way.
Here is Portland’s shot chart in quarters 2-4:
So, 60 percent shooting for Portland in the first quarter, followed by a 36 percent clip moving forward. Lillard and McCollum combined to shoot 11-of-33 (33%) in quarters 2-4, the Blazers as a team made just four more threes after canning seven in the first 12 minutes, and things probably look a lot different if they didn’t come out in On Fire mode. The Thunder were the better team after whatever happened there at the beginning.
Behind the defense, OKC nearly erased the 19-point deficit, clawed to within striking distance late, and actually outscored the Blazers 74-65 in the last three quarters. Ultimately, the comeback fell short for one reason, and pretty much one reason only: no one could make shots. Open shots, contested shots, shots they were visualizing during TV timeouts — all misses.
According to FiveThirtyEight, OKC missed 10 its 13 looks from long range that came without a defender within six feet — which won’t get the job done when you’re trying to dig out of a double-digit hole, on the road, and in the playoffs against a good team. George went 8-of-24 from the field, Jerami Grant shot 2-of-8 (0/3 3P) after lighting it up at the end of the regular season, Terrance Ferguson went 1-of-2 from deep (needs to shoot more), and Dennis Schroder proved volatile off the bench yet again, going 5-of-17 from the field and missing ALL SEVEN of his three-point attempts. Westbrook and Steven Adams were a combined 16-of-31 (51.6%). Everyone else was 21-of-62 (34%) and made just 4-of-23 from long distance. Not going to work, is it?
If you’re looking for the silver lining (which I promised), it’s that OKC was in this game in the fourth quarter, had a chance to steal it after being down huge, and came up short because the ball wouldn’t go in. That’s going to happen sometimes, but it bodes well for the Thunder’s chances moving forward (assuming they don’t shoot 15% from three again). Damian Lillard said it best after the game, “I don’t think it was anything we did.“
There’s your moral victory. Something to build on.
(3) Paul George’s Shoulder
PG was “questionable” for Game 1 due to shoulder soreness, but to no surprise, was in the starting lineup when tip-off arrived. George ended up playing a team-high 43 minutes, which was encouraging, but he went 8-of-24 from the field, 4-of-15 from three, and wrapped up his night with 26 points — well off the 38 PPG he averaged against Portland in the regular season.
Finishing the Lillard quote from above, he went on to say this about George’s off night, particularly from long range:
That’s actually one of the things we need to do a better job of going into the second game, because a lot of times it was Paul George. He shot half of them and he’s the last guy we want shooting those shots and some of the ones he got were open. He just happened to miss them tonight.Damian Lillard
And missed them he did. According to George, his shoulder is not to blame for the poor outing:
For me, it’s just rhythm. Four days ago, I couldn’t even lift my shoulder. Fast-forward to today, it’s the first time I shot the ball. It’s just rhythm. Tomorrow, I’ll get shots up, get that in tune and try to get the same looks we got tonight.Royce Young / ESPN
Whether or not you believe him is your choice, but this is the same guy that said he couldn’t lift his arm above his head just five days ago. The same guy who sat the Thunder’s regular season finale for the very same reason. It’s possible he was just dealing with some rust, but there’s too much smoke to completely write off a fire, right? Am I being paranoid?
That said, George practiced today in Portland — and said afterward the shoulder is “pain free” ahead of Game 2. I want to believe it was just a rhythm thing on Sunday, but I’ve been conditioned as a sports fan to always assume the absolute worst.
PG can shut off my anxiety by returning to form tomorrow night. If the struggles continue, the Thunder will need a miracle. (and I’ll need an inhaler)
(4) Can Play Kanter?
As it turns out, you can play Kanter in the playoffs — as illustrated by his 20 points, 18 rebounds, and game-high +15 in his 34 minutes of action. Lillard called him Portland’s “MVP” after the game, and he was absolutely right. Kanter stepped up in Jusuf Nurkic’s absence and had a fantastic afternoon. He even played a little defense (2 blocks, 1 steal)!
Adams came out of the gate hot, scoring 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the first quarter, and it looked like it was going to be a long night for Kanter on the defensive end. However, Adams only scored six more points from that point forward, and the Thunder didn’t really put Kanter in the pick-n-roll blender very often.
The Thunder in Game 1 made Kanter defend nine shooting possessions in the pick and roll. That’s not including pick-and-roll plays that resulted in passes. OKC posted up against Kanter six times.
Brett Dawson / Athletic
While it’s great to see Adams get the ball in the post and go to work, OKC shouldn’t go to that more than the PnR in tomorrow’s Game 2. Kanter is a walking double-double and disruptor on the offensive glass (7 in Game 1), so the best way to mitigate his damage is to force Terry Stotts to take him off the floor. Depth issues pretty much require Kanter playing a certain amount, but we’ve all seen what happens when teams start picking on him.
If the Thunder can’t attack Kanter more often in the PnR, he could continue eating well against his former Stache Bro. He’s too talented on offense/the glass to think he can be totally stymied without first making him a liability.
(But seriously — good for Enes.)
(5) Just One Game
Alas, Sunday was just one game in a seven-game series, and unless you predicted a Thunder sweep, a loss was bound to happen. You’d obviously prefer taking Game 1 to immediately steal home court advantage, but the opportunity is still there in Tuesday’s Game 2. If OKC takes a 1-1 split back to Chesapeake Energy Arena, that’s a successful trip to the pacific northwest.
In order to get back to Oklahoma City with an even series, the formula is fairly simple — continue defending like the final three quarters, and knock down shots (especially the open ones). If PG can shake off his “rust’, and Westbrook continues trying to lead the offense via distributing/doing everything like he did in Game 1, it’s not naive to believe good things are on the way. Grant, Ferg, those guys — they really can’t shoot much worse. There’s only one way to go after shooting 5-of-33 (15%) from three-point range as a team.
In the simplest terms imaginable, the ball just needs to go in. It’s funny how simple everything can be sometimes.