OKLAHOMA CITY — The series between the Thunder and Trail Blazers — which includes at least one more game, beginning at 9:30 tonight, inside Moda Center — is playing out on different levels.
On one, Oklahoma City can’t shoot, can’t seem to corral Portland’s Damian Lillard, particularly in the third quarter; can’t seem to sustain the energy that earned it reasonably significant leads in two second quarters of games it eventually lost and, somehow, try as they might, not Russell Westbrook nor Paul George has managed to take ownership of any of the series’ four games to date.
Though Westbrook was terrific in Game 3, OKC’s lone victory, that one was still most notable for the outsized contributions of Jerami Grant, Dennis Schroder and Terrance Ferguson.
So that's one level.
A bigger one is marked by quotes like this from Thunder coach Billy Donovan.
“Obviously, we’re down 3-1,” he said. “All we can really do right now is watch the film, try to make some corrections and adjustments and get ready for Game 5.”
And quotes like this one from Lillard, about how the Blazers have responded to injuries, doubt and a troubled playoff history to take a dominating series edge.
“We leaned on each other just a little bit more and it just made us better in the long run,” he began. “You know, instead of us saying, ‘We’ve got some injuries, Dame, you’ve got to average 35 and do this extra stuff.’ Instead of that, the mentality was, ‘Let’s be a better unit’ … We didn’t make it about what I needed to do or nothing like that, and I think it was good for our team.”
It’s like the teams are on two different planets.
On the one the Thunder live on just about everything's good, even when you lose and it all takes place in the present, making it hard to learn any lessons and it’s all about execution, never galvanizing or going on whole-hearted searches to address issues that might allow for galvanizing.
Recall when the Thunder were well into their their post All-Star break slide and Donovan spoke about how, ultimately, it was a good thing.
“The fact that we’re dealing with some hard stuff right now, that’s good in my opinion …because it’s going to be hard if we’re still playing once 82 games are over with,” he said on March 18, about 90 minutes before tipping off against Miami, which became another loss, OKC’s ninth in 14 post-break contests.
Well, sure it's a good thing, but not if what’s exposed is a lack of mental toughness that’s never addressed.
Juxtapose that with what Lilliard said or what Portland guard CJ McCollum said after Game 4 about how the Blazers have matured and how they speak to each other.
“I think we are a lot more mature than we were in past years. We can handle adversity,” he said. “Understanding what we wanted to accomplish tonight and we did not want anything to get in our way. We don’t want anything to interfere with that.
“Multiple times, we had discussions about not saying anything to anyone. If they do not have a black or gray jersey on, don’t talk to them.”
Given everything the Thunder have ever said for public consumption, it’s impossible to picture any private discussions loaded with the same gravity as those the Lillard and McCollum describe the Blazers as having.
Also, it’s not that Portland, apparently, has these conversations with each other.
Instead, it's that, when asked about how they’ve gotten to this point, up 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs despite losing their center to a snapped lower leg with nine games remaining in the regular season, and despite being matched with a No. 6 seed — the Thunder — who had beaten them four times this regular season, those conversations and discussions remain so present to them.
So, when Donovan says all his team can do is watch film and try to make some corrections and adjustments, he’s sort of telling you everything.
It’s all they can do.
All that other stuff the Blazers have revealed about themselves?
Too late for the Thunder to be that.
Maybe next year.
Oklahoma City at Portland
Series: Blazers lead 3-1
Time: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday
Place: Moda Center
TV: TNT and FSOK
Radio: WWLS-FM 98.1