The first marquee playoff matchup wrapped up Wednesday night before it even felt like it had started. It featured two All-NBA point guards who, in their own rights, were having phenomenal seasons.
It was as even as you could hope for regarding a three seed versus a six seed – injuries to the former could even start an argument that the latter was better – but after all the smoke cleared, it was one 37-foot, cold-blooded game-winning shot that ended the series much sooner than anyone had expected.
There was plenty of time left for the Trail Blazers to get a much better look. Damian Lillard had almost 10 seconds to get a play set up. But he took matters into his own hands, squared up Paul George and iced the game on one of the longer three-point, game-sealing shots in recent NBA history.
Even with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic, most would have assumed this series would last an easy seven games. Both teams have plenty of talent in their starting five, coupled with solid depth off the bench. So why did it end so abruptly in five games?
The core of the argument can be boiled down to the starting point guards: Russell Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard. One is a freakishly athletic and a triple-double king. The other is a sneaky good ball-handler who can shoot quite well from deep. At the end of the day, the play from each player during the series effectively sealed the fate for their teams moving forward.
Let’s first take a look at Westbrook’s numbers. On one hand, he nearly averaged a triple-double, posting 22.8 points, 9 rebounds and 10.6 assists during the series. He did a great job – for the most part – at feeding the right players at the right time. He funneled plenty of offensive possessions toward Paul George, the better scorer, and Dennis Schroder when they shared the court.
The problem in his game came from primarily two sources – and those issues were so blaring that they ended up being major detractors from some of the other positive things he was doing -Westbrook’s defense and his inefficient shooting.
When on the court, Westbrook was a blaring negative 10.5 net rating (!) – stemming primarily from a horrid rating on the defensive end of 115.4. He shared the court with fellow All-Star Paul George quite a bit, and George was actually a slight positive in net rating. That shows just how poor Russell was on D.
During the season, Russell averaged 1.9 steals per game but averaged just one in the series against Portland. The combined handles of both Lillard and CJ McCollum are likely what led to Westbrook’s drastic decrease in takeaways. That, or the fact that he could never really find himself on defense.
Turning to the offensive end of the court, it actually looked even worse for Westbrook. While he averaged double-digit assists, he committed almost five turnovers per night. His shooting was another terrible story. He shot just 36 percent from the field and did so despite shooting a respectable (for Westbrook) 32.4 percent from three. What’s worse is he took 22.2 shots per game. That’s two shots more per game than George, who is the exponentially better shooter.
Moving on to Damian Lillard, it is very easy to see how his play dictated the pace of four out of the five games. He averaged 33 points on 46.2 percent from the field. He shot almost 11 threes per game and knocked them down at a staggering 48.1 percent. Add six assists and an incredible 2.4 steals per night and you have the recipe for a gentleman’s sweep.
Advanced stats favor Damian, as well. Outside of Raymond Felton who played significantly less, Lillard led the series for both teams in net rating at 11.4. His all-around play was on full display every game, and there wasn’t ever really a point in the series that you’d place him and Westbrook on the same pedestal.
Westbrook is a terrific player – don’t take this article out of context – but he was outplayed significantly during this series. He played really well in Game 3, but other than that outlier he was hypothetically wrestled into submission by Lillard. His issue with this series is he went back to what he knows. When Westbrook is against the ropes, he essentially turns into a chucker, and -apart from the hot nights that are becoming rarer – this is always a bad thing for the Thunder.
Five games is a large enough sample to showcase just how much better Lillard has become than Westbrook. He proved that the game is moving more towards efficient shooters, and he’s taking full advantage of it.
Lillard is definitely on a hot streak, and it would be awesome to see that carry the Trail Blazers through to the Western Conference Finals. They certainly have a shot, being on a more favorable side of the bracket that would have them match up against either the Spurs or the Nuggets.
Lillard’s Mona Lisa of a playoff series was capped off by one of the best game-winning shots in NBA Playoff history.
“It was a great feeling when it left my hands,” Lillard told reporters. “It felt good.”
After the game, Paul George had this to say regarding Lillard’s walk-off winner: “That’s a bad, bad shot. I don’t care what anybody says. That’s a bad shot. But hey, he made it. That story won’t be told that it was a bad shot. We live with that.”
The hot streak continued onto Twitter where Lillard responded to George’s quote with his own reply. It will be interesting to see what happens with Portland moving forward, but regardless of where they end up, one thing is certain.
Lillard is playing at an all-time playoff level, and he will continue to tear through the Western Conference for the foreseeable future.
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