PORTLAND — If it’s true that teams take on the personality of their city, or that cities take on the personality of their teams, then you can see why Portland and the Trail Blazers are such a perfect pair.
Without trafficking in too many stereotypes, Portlanders are known to be conscientious, bookish, creative, kind-hearted, seasonally depressed and, you know, a little weird.
At least some of those terms could describe the Blazers. They don’t have the Type A impatience of L.A. or New York, the high-tech sheen of Silicon Valley, the Rust Belt grit or the Texas swagger. They’re an easy team to like but a tough team to fear.
That type of reputation can accrue when a team wins 90 games in the regular season and zero in the playoffs over the span of two seasons, as the Blazers did prior to this year. After 10 straight playoff losses, it was hard to take them seriously as a team capable of winning a first-round series, let alone an NBA title.
Through two playoff games against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Blazers seem intent on shedding that reputation, or at least reshaping it. They lead the series 2-0 after Tuesday’s 114-94 victory, making them the only team among the Western Conference’s top three seeds to avoid a loss on their home floor.
That slight breeze you’re feeling right now? That’s the open window. Not wide open, but cracked at least, enough that the Blazers can catch a whiff of the Western Conference finals.
This is the first time post-LaMarcus Aldridge that you could say that about a Portland team. The Blazers were swept last year by the Pelicans and swept by the Warriors the year before that. They made it to the conference semifinals in 2016 but lost to the Warriors in five games.
What’s different about this year? For one thing, the Warriors aren’t quite the unstoppable juggernaut they’ve been. They blew a 31-point lead at home to Clippers on Monday in a game where center DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his quad. They’re a daunting matchup but not an automatic death sentence.
Neither Denver nor San Antonio, Portland’s two possible second-round opponents, poses an insurmountable challenge for the Blazers. So it’s really up to the Blazers to decide how far this run will go.
“I know it seems like a long time ago, but I’ve had experience being up 2-0 before,” Damian Lillard said. “After our past two experiences, I’m happy about it, but I really don’t care.
“I know how quickly things can change. We’ve got to maintain our focus, stay sharp … We’ve just got to keep our heads down and keep working.”
The Blazers have done exactly what a higher seed should do on its home floor. The Thunder are desperate now, whether they’ll admit it or not. Winning one game in OKC would position Portland to close out the series in five.
I don’t know about you, but I was afraid the Blazers might get bullied in this series. Russell Westbrook is a mercurial player, for sure, but he’s the kind of guy who can step on your throat. Minus Jusuf Nurkic, it wasn’t clear the Blazers had enough bodies to throw at OKC center Steven Adams.
Instead Portland has been the aggressor, showing just enough of a nasty streak to get under the Thunder’s skin. At one point Tuesday, Lillard was hounding Westbrook near the sideline, swiping at the ball as Westbrook swiped back, resulting in a testy exchange between the players after Westbrook hit the floor. Officials reviewed the play for a hostile act, and though they didn’t find one, the message had been sent.
This 2-0 lead? Now that’s a hostile act.
It’s apparent that Paul George, who averaged 38 points in four regular-season victories against the Blazers, isn’t playing at full strength. Westbrook finished a rebound shy of a triple double but is 13-for-37 and 1-for-10 from 3-point range in the series.
Meanwhile, Portland’s stars have been terrific. Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 62 points Tuesday night, bookending the first half and third quarter with 3-pointers to beat the buzzer.
The difference in 3-point shooting — Portland is 24-for-57, the Thunder 10-for-61 — tells the story of the series. Every time Lillard buries a 30-footer, it’s a reminder of the Thunder’s greatest flaw.
“Some of the turnovers and the shot-making of Lillard and McCollum magnified the shooting for us,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.
There’s a lot of series left, but it was hard to watch these first two games and not feel like something has changed with the Blazers. This nice regular-season team, the one led by likeable stars and a quirky supporting cast, suddenly looks like a playoff threat.
These playoffs have given the Blazers their best chance in years to do something special.
It’s not a wide-open window, but at least they can feel the breeze.