The Thunder will go only as far as Paul George can take them

PORTLAND, Ore. — Some 50 minutes before tipoff, Paul George walked onto the floor at the Moda Center on Sunday with black tape canvasing both shoulders and picked up two basketballs. As is his pregame routine, standing on the baseline, he pounded both balls into the floor, shifting them between hands. He moved up, dribbling up to the 3-point line and back, and then flipped one to the side. He turned, looking at the basket, and took a 15-footer.

It was, apparently, the first time George had shot a basketball in five days. Prior to Game 1, the last shot he took was the game winner against the Houston Rockets on April 9. He entered Sunday’s game officially listed as questionable because of right shoulder soreness, but there was never really any question if he would play or not. He said as much after the team’s practice on Friday, noting it’s the playoffs: You play through pain.

But he certainly wasn’t himself. After averaging 38 points a game and hitting 45.9 percent from 3 on nearly 10 attempts against the Portland Trail Blazers during the regular season, George scored 26, including just 4 of 15 from 3, in the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s 104-99 loss in Game 1.

It wasn’t a physical issue, though, he said.

“For me, it’s just rhythm,” he said. “Four days ago, I couldn’t even lift my shoulder. Fast-forward to today, it’s the first time I shot the ball. It’s just rhythm. Tomorrow, I’ll get shots up, get that in tune and try to get the same looks we got tonight.”

That’s the thing: George had great looks. Really, the Thunder did at large. According to Second Spectrum data, the Thunder had better quality shots by both quantified shot quality (51.8 to 49.1) and quantified shot probability (51.6 to 51.5) than Portland.

But as a team, the Thunder hit an abysmal 5 of 33 from 3, with George’s off night punctuating it. Dennis Schroder, after hitting a career-high eight 3s against the Bucks in the Thunder’s final regular-season game (OKC hit a franchise-best 23), went 0-for-7. Westbrook went 0-for-4, Jerami Grant 0-for-3.

The Thunder shot 2-for-15 (13.3 percent) on uncontested 3s in Game 1. Overall, the 15.2 percent Oklahoma City converted on of their 33 3-point attempts is the worst percentage in NBA playoff history on at least 30 attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“I don’t think it was really anything we did,” Damian Lillard said of the Thunder’s shooting. “That’s actually one of the things we need to do a better job of going into the second game, because a lot of times, it was Paul George. He shot half of them, and he’s the last guy we want shooting those shots, and some of the ones he got were open and he just happened to miss ’em tonight.”

If there’s something to be hopeful from for the Thunder, though, it’s that George might have started to catch a rhythm in the fourth quarter. He hit 2 of 4 from deep in the fourth, including one that cut Portland’s lead to one with 2:44 left. Lillard answered it straightaway with his own 31-foot missile from distance, and that was the prevailing theme of Game 1: The Trail Blazers made shots when they needed to; the Thunder didn’t. And so much of that falls to George.

“They were going to try and do whatever they can to stop me,” George said. “It’s nothing new. Nothing different. We good. I’m good over here.”

The Thunder have other quality pieces and are at their best when there’s balance, but George is the fulcrum of their offense. Russell Westbrook is the engine, George is the accelerator. It’s no secret the Thunder aren’t a great shooting team, but George can single-handedly elevate them to being one. Westbrook was relentless and admirably stubborn in the way he hunted shots for George on Sunday, and at some point, the Thunder have to believe they will fall.

There were moments when it felt like Westbrook might click over into fine-I’ll-just-do-it-myself mode, but he largely resisted. He took two shots in the fourth quarter, one from 3. A criticism of Westbrook is his tendency to go rogue, especially when things start to go sideways. This season, he has shown a new conviction to sticking with it and trusting open teammates even when they aren’t making shots. But Westbrook can’t set up a teammate and make the shot for him, too.

“I thought at times it was contagious to our team; we moved the ball,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook’s passing. “I didn’t feel like we labored offensively, I didn’t feel like we were really struggling and [that] it was a grind for us.”

George’s shoulder issues have played a part in the Thunder’s second half drop-off, with him first hurting his right shoulder on Feb. 26 against the Nuggets. He missed three games and then returned only to hurt his left shoulder a few days later. With him needing some time to rediscover his rhythm then, the Thunder struggled. He came around, and so did OKC.

George said after the game the soreness had relented and, physically, everything was “good” during the game. He has acknowledged before that one hit in the wrong spot can cause a setback, but he’s not feeling any problems with his mechanics.

It’s all about settling back in and finding his shot. Because in so many ways, the Thunder’s season rests on Paul George’s shoulders.

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