PORTLAND, Ore. – Damian Lillard stared intently well after his deep, buzzer-beating 3-pointer fell to close out Portland’s third quarter against the Thunder. The look on his face was one of determination, focus and yes, even a little bravado.
It was as if Lillard was making a statement. It’s not new for the Portland guard.
Lillard, the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley all play with an edge and have provided some of the most entertaining moments of the postseason so far.
With Lillard and Westbrook squaring off in the Portland-Oklahoma City series, they almost feed off each other’s energy. Lillard finished with 29 points – including the stone-cold 3 – on Tuesday night and the Trail Blazers took a 2-0 lead against the Thunder with a 114-94 victory. The series shifts to Oklahoma City on Friday.
Lillard has been dialed in from the start of the series against the Thunder, in part because the Trail Blazers were embarrassed in last year’s playoffs by New Orleans. Portland got ousted in four games by the Pelicans, becoming the first No. 3 seed to get swept in a best-of-seven series by a No. 6 seed.
Sometimes overlooked on a smaller-market team in a conference dominated by Steph Curry and James Harden, Lillard has often played with a chip on his shoulder – and he’s embraced it.
His determination was intensified by critics who suggested the Blazers’ playoff fate was sealed when they lost center Jusuf Nurkic late in the season to a broken leg. Asked what he would say to those naysayers after going up by two games, Lillard simply said: “Nothing.”
At least for now, Lillard seems to have the upper hand in an occasionally antagonistic on-court relationship with Westbrook.
The two got into a tussle for the ball Tuesday night that caused players from both teams to step in before officials tamped down on the tension. It certainly wasn’t the first time. The two jawed at each other at the free throw line in a game in January, and there’s the much-replayed clip of Westbrook kicking the ball when Lillard bent to pick it up in 2016.
“He’s one of the top point guards in the league and so am I,” Lillard proclaimed. “When you get out there and you know that your team is going to go as you go, he has to outplay me and I have to outplay him if I want my team to win, so that’s just what it turns into.”
Westbrook has his own motivation.
A former league MVP, two-time scoring champion, two-time assists leader and two-time All-Star MVP, Westbrook nonetheless appears to seek validation every night. He always has been volatile, sometimes getting into disagreements with players, officials, fans and the media. He led the league with 16 technical fouls this season and even drew a one-game suspension this season for accumulating too many.
Like the Blazers, the Thunder haven’t made it out of the first round for the past two seasons – ever since Kevin Durant went to Golden State.
“I think it’s just two really competitive guys. You know, probably, both guys individually have worked hard. Both guys want to win. Both guys are leaders of their team. Both guys are point guards,” Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan said about Lillard and Westbrook. “Both guys take their job very, very seriously, so I think it probably speaks to the competitive nature of both of them.”
Beverley is another one of those players always playing like he belongs.
Known as a pesky defender, he’s been tireless in his pursuit of Durant during the first-round series between the Clippers and Warriors. Both were ejected when their battle got too heated in Game 1.
Beverley has been the fly that Durant hasn’t been able to shoo away.
The Clippers point guard is a major reason why the series is tied 1-1 heading into Thursday’s game in Los Angeles.
“I don’t try to get in people’s head, man,” Beverley said. “I can’t help people get irritated by me. It’s not my fault. I go out there and I try to be the best defender on the (expletive) planet, consistently – day in and out. I take my role, I take my job, very seriously, and I do it for my teammates. I understand my role, and I understand how to get stops.”
Beverley is nothing if not tenacious. When his career at Arkansas was cut short by academic issues, he went overseas to play for several years before landing with the Rockets in 2013. He’s since solidified his league-wide reputation as a vexing defender.
Perhaps it was Durant who summed up Beverley the best.
“Well, I’ve been playing against Pat Bevs since he was at Arkansas so I kind of know what he brings. He’s a Chicago kid, grew up and played in the Chicago area, so those dudes play with a different type of grit, so I can appreciate that about Pat,” Durant said. “You know what he’s going to bring to the table, just physicality, the mucking up the game a little bit with his physicality, his talking, everything. That’s what he brings to each team he plays on. That’s his identity.”
AP Sports Writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco and Cliff Brunt in Oklahoma City, and freelancer Jill Painter Lopez in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.
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