The Portland Trail Blazers first round series with the Oklahoma City Thunder isn’t over, not yet, but with a 3-1 lead and the series shifting back to what’s sure to be a raucous Moda Center for Game 5, the Blazers are inches away from avenging their performance in last year’s postseason.
Portland was tidily swept out of the playoffs in 2018 by the lower-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, a failure that has stuck with guys like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum even as they’re on the precipice of putting it firmly in the rear view. After McCollum dropped a team-high 27 points on the heads of the Thunder Sunday night, the former LeHigh star spoke about last year’s debacle and how it’s propelled the Blazers to the doorstep of the second round.
“We got swept last year, and it was really embarrassing,” McCollum said. “It was on TV every day. They talked about me getting traded. They talked about how we can’t win together. We remember it.”
The “we” McCollum is referring to is his backcourt partnership with Lillard. They struggled mightily against the Pelicans last summer, especially on the defensive end. The Blazers were -14.4 when the two shared the court against New Orleans in last year’s playoffs, per Cleaning the Glass, and gave up 126.2 points per 100 possessions defensively, an absolutely abhorrent number.
McCollum and Lillard have flipped those numbers on their head against the Thunder. The two have been human flamethrowers when they’ve shared the court against the OKC, with the Blazers scoring 115.7 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, and posting a net rating of +14.2. They’ve thoroughly outplayed the headline-grabbing duo of Russell Westbrook and Paul George, and McCollum has been unconscious from deep. He’s shooting 51.6 percent from beyond against the Thunder while taking nearly 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc, per Cleaning the Glass.
If the Blazers are to continue their unlikely charge to the Western Conference Finals, McCollum and Lillard will have to elevate their two-man game to another level. The winner of San Antonio and Denver awaits, with both teams boasting better infinitely better shooting numbers than what the Thunder are currently chucking at the Blazers. But McCollum and Lillard clearly have bigger plans than just making it through the first round.
“I was fortunately able to fly to Europe and see my brother play because the season ended so early (last year),” McCollum said. “I told him this year, I ain’t going to be able to make it.”