While the Trail Blazers have something of an antagonistic relationship with the Thunder, Damian Lillard would not label it a full-blown rivalry.
That could change Sunday.
“This is our first time playing them in a playoff series, so I don’t think they could be considered a rival. They’re one of our division opponents. It’s always a physical, heated battle against them. And they’re competitive, and we’re competitive. So it’s always that type of game.”
The Blazers are making a sixth straight playoff appearance, but they haven’t made it out of the first round for the past two seasons. Last year as a No. 3 seed Portland got swept by the New Orleans Pelicans.
They’re riding some momentum with 14 wins in their last 17 games, despite missing center Jusuf Nurkic and guard CJ McCollum for some of those games.
The Thunder won their last five games and secured the sixth seed in the Western Conference. The team has been to the playoffs every season since moving from Seattle, but hasn’t gotten past the opening round for the past two seasons. Oklahoma City went to the NBA finals in 2012 but ultimately fell in five games to the Miami Heat.
The Thunder beat the Blazers in all four meetings this season, including a heated 129-121 overtime victory on March 7 that has spurred some of the rivalry talk.
Russell Westbrook had 37 points and Paul George added 32 points and 14 rebounds, while on the other side Lillard scored a season-high 51 points and Nurkic added 13 points and 17 rebounds before he was sent off with his second technical late in regulation. Nurkic and Paul had gone at each other for much of the game.
“Every time we’ve played them over the years, it’s pretty much been a war — physical, close games, chippy,” Lillard said afterward. “This one was no different.”
So it’s probably safe to expect much of the same now that the stakes are higher.
Other things to watch in the playoff series between the Blazers and the Thunder, which opens Sunday at the Moda Center:
Paul George is nursing a sore right shoulder and is considered day-to-day for Sunday’s game.
The All-Star forward missed the Thunder’ regular-season finale Wednesday at Milwaukee because of the nagging injury, which also kept him out of games on Feb. 28, March 2 and March 3 (Mar. 1, 3, and 5, PHL time). He hit a winning three-pointer on Tuesday against Houston but aggravated his shoulder.
“It’s playoff time, so it’s more than this, it’s about being out there with my guys. As much as I can get it 100 as possible or close to it, expect me to be out there on Sunday,” George said.
George finished second in the league with 28 points per game this season, and he led the league with 2.21 steals per contest. He shoots 39 percent from 3-point range and is the team’s No. 3 rebounder.
McCollum missed 10 games with a left knee strain and had only played in two games since returning. But he said he’s ready to put in a full shift.
“I feel good, I feel like I’m ready to play, looking forward to the playoffs. I’m glad I was able to get back and get a couple of games in, get a few game minutes in before the playoffs start,” McCollum said.
McCollum is averaging 21 points a game this season for Portland.
The Blazers’ hopes for success in the playoffs were dealt a blow last month when Nurkic was lost for the season with a broken left leg. Nurkic was averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds when he sustained the gruesome injury during a game against the Brooklyn Nets.
Fans were so upset about the loss of the seven-footer known as the “Bosnian Beast” they chipped in for a billboard in Portland that proclaims “We Love You Jusuf Nurkic” in English and his native tongue.
PICKING THE THUNDER?
Lillard, who averaged nearly 26 points a game during the regular season, was asked if the fact that many national outlets favored the Thunder in the series gave the Blazers extra incentive.
“They didn’t even pick us to be a playoff team, period. So we didn’t value their opinion when they chose that, and we don’t value it now,” he said. “It is what it is. They can pick whoever they want to pick, we still have to go out and play.”