OKLAHOMA CITY — For the record, Damian Lillard is here for all of it.
The breakneck pace, the hostile environment, the intensity and whatever drama the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook bring to the party in this first-round playoff series against Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers is all good.
Bring all the smoke you want, Lillard insists. His crew is ready.
So whatever craziness ensues in Sunday’s Game 4 at Chesapeake Energy Arena will not surprise the unflappable leader of the Trail Blazers.
The Trail Blazers persevered through it all before, during and after Friday's?Game 3 loss here when the Thunder tried to rattle them. They endured every taunt, bump and sign of disrespect, the overt ones and the more subtle digs, because they had to.
It’s going to be talk, it’s going to be fouls, it’s going to be all that stuff.
“We’ve just got to focus on us,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “We’ve got to be us and do what we do and all of the peripheral stuff … doesn’t have to do with us.”
Except when it does. When it fuels the opposition the way it appeared to gas up the Thunder before their home crowd.
“It’s going to be talk, it’s going to be fouls, it’s going to be all that stuff. All that stuff is going to be part of it. But it’s who can deal with that stuff and not be too emotional,” Lillard said Saturday, the day after a wild Game 3 atmosphere. “Who can be more even-keeled. Who can handle it more and still have the right mentality through all of those things. And we just stay within ourselves, play hard and we compete.
“And if something is brought to our doorstep, we’re going to open the door and see what’s going on. And that’s all it was. Because we don’t go out there talking and acting no type of way. But like I said, if it comes to our doorstep, we’re going to open the door and see what’s going on.”
Love it or hate it, the playoffs come fully stocked with some built-in animosity between the combatants.
When the foolishness fades, though, it’s about the basics, about who can execute under duress with everything on the line.
But the Blazers understand the importance of maintaining your composure?better than anyone after losing their way last season in a first-round sweep against the Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo-led New Orleans Pelicans.
This group is different. They’ve been hardened by that failure and inspired by the resilience they showed this season in capturing the No. 3 seed for the second straight season.
That’s their team -- they can do whatever they want.
They won’t take the bait. It’s hard enough to maintain your focus and execute game plans against elite competition in the postseason crucible?without added?drama. Portland has lost eight straight road playoff games and is 0-3 in this city this season, regular season included.
“That’s their team, they can do whatever they want,” C.J. McCollum said. “Our team was wearing red last night. So I was worried about the team in red. It’s easy for me.?I just go hoop, same thing I’ve been doing since I was 3 years old. It’s just more cameras and more attention and more pressure for some people.
"But I don’t feel that. I just go hoop. And I become my best self in these types of moments. I just lock in, understand the game plan and play as hard as you can ... and live with the results.”
The Thunder rode Westbrook’s emotions and the palpable energy from their fans?down the stretch in Game 3. With he and Paul George grinding away and shots falling from behind the 3-point line, it was easy to see how momentum shifted the way it did.
“Obviously, the Oklahoma City fans are always going to have their team’s back,” said Blazers center Enes Kanter, who played in 179 games in two-plus seasons with the Thunder, and knows exactly what type of edge Westbrook can bring to help stir things up in this building. "Whether they are up 20 or down 20, they are not going anywhere.
“The environment is so much more intense anyway. I feel like the regular season compared to this is like AAU compared to college basketball. It’s that much different. Every possession matters. There is no coming back when you make those fatal mistakes. So you have to be as prepared as possible ... and play smart.”
And make sure to avoid the emotional land mines that can shake your focus. The Blazers have two players who will make sure to steady things for Game 4 in Lillard and McCollum, who in turn will make sure no one else strays.
“They follow the leaders,” McCollum said of the collective composure that will be critical for Game 4. “They follow Dame and I. Our demeanor and our mentality and our approach rubs off on them and they see it. They always say captains never panic. They won a game. Kudos. But a series is the first to four.”
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