Tuesday night was Judgment Day for two tortured franchises and their resolute leaders. The Blazers and Thunder came into the series desperate for success having suffered in almost perfect parallel, each without a series win in two years despite talented rosters and high expectations. It was a devastating collision course, and there could only be one victor to finally claw their way out of the pit of playoff mediocrity, sending the loser spiraling back into its depths.
For Lillard and Westbrook, it was their chance to legitimize their legacies, because if anything was certain, each team was only going to go as far as their leader could take them. And now that Lillard is preparing for the second round and Westbrook is preparing for whatever it is you do in Oklahoma City for the summer, there is some honest evaluation to be made about the two stars and how they got here.
One day a lightning bolt struck a nuclear powerplant and out of the explosion came Russell Westbrook. He’s the heart and soul of the Thunder, eternally loyal to his team and to winning, but it’s obvious now that some things need to change. He continues to force bad shots and sag on defense to grab rebounds, but it’s not out of selfishness—to question Westbrook’s commitment to his teammates, to winning, to the city of Oklahoma City itself is blasphemy—no, it’s because he has trust issues.
And can you blame him? Kevin Durant left a gaping hole in the Thunder’s basketball fabric (and Westbrook’s heart) when he left for the Warriors, and Russ stretched to fill it all. It even kind of worked for a year. In 2016/17 He was a lovable do-it-all player en route to averaging a triple-double and earning the MVP award. But now that Sam Presti has revamped the roster with yet another superstar in Paul George and effective contributors like Jerami Grant and Dennis Schröder, the team is still waiting for Westbrook to adjust.
They need his intensity and playmaking, just not his stats. It seems there is no middle ground for the former MVP. Russ is either finishing possessions with a shot or assist, or he’s standing passively in the corner. If the Thunder are ever going to be successful in the playoffs, they need him to be willing to be that first domino in a long chain sometimes, not always the last one. Paul George has returned to the premier circles of basketball excellence and young players like Grant and Ferguson have serious potential just waiting to be tapped into. It’s time for the Thunder front office to start considering that Westbrook might be the chains tethering the Thunder to the ground, not the hero pulling them up, and that the wounds from that 2016/17 season might run deeper than they could have ever imagined.
Let’s talk about this.
37-footers at the buzzer are supposed to feel like a prayer; this one felt like a worship service, a shrine to a basketball demi-god at the peak of his powers. It was a healer for past shortcomings, and a celebration for Lillard stepping out into the pantheon of playoff glory. We all knew it was going in before it even left his hands, and so did Dame, but maybe that’s because we’ve seen it before. Like Russ, Dame was a top player with a star pedigree from a young age, but unlike Russ, he used his subsequent shortcomings to tweak his game and figure out how to lead his team in the way they needed.
A year ago, the Blazers were too dependent on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. So, when the Pelicans forced the ball out of their hands, Portland collapsed, ending up on the wrong side of a first round series sweep. They desperately needed Dame to be able to influence games even when he wasn’t scoring, and he answered the call. He has become almost LeBron-esque in the way he can control the flow of games even without scoring the ball. He’s developed such an impressive feel for when to insert himself into the game as Batman, and when to sink back into the Robin role. He and McCollum had already figured out how to play off one another, but this ability to defer has allowed for the progression of players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, and Seth Curry. Those guys made big plays all series long, and it’s because Dame gave them the space to do so.
Lillard has become the ultimate star and team leader. We already knew he could hit big shots, but what he’s shown us this year is that he can make the right plays too—something that can’t always be said about Russ. There was only ever going to be one of the “zeros” left standing, and if we’d been paying attention all season, we’d have known which one it would be before the series even started.