Top scorer Damian Lillard insisted that his Portland Trail Blazers teammate Enes Kanter was the MVP as they beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in their playoff opener on Sunday night.
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Playing against his former team, Kanter scored 20 points and grabbed 18 rebounds as a 104-99 victory gave the Trail Blazers a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference first-round series.
Kanter, who joined the Trail Blazers in February after being released by the New York Knicks, is only in Portland’s starting five due to a season-ending injury suffered by fellow center Jusuf Nurkic at the end of March.
Highlights of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers
“I can’t explain it,” said Lillard, who led the Trail Blazers with 30 points.
“He was so big for our team, especially down the stretch, coming up with those extra rebounds, giving us extra possessions – it was huge for us.
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“He was the MVP for us tonight, going against his old team, especially with Nurk (Nurkic) going down. It was huge on every level.”
The Trail Blazers made a flying start to lead 39-25 at the end of the first quarter, but the Thunder ground their way back into the contest and pulled within a point with 2:35 remaining.
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With Portland having failed to win a playoff game since 2016 after consecutive 4-0 first-round defeats the last two seasons, the prospect of another demoralising loss loomed, before Lillard stepped up to make a crucial three-pointer.
Lillard led Portland with 30 points as they recorded a first playoff win since 2016
Kanter made a big play of his own moments later with a left-handed drive, which enabled Portland to hold on for victory.
“It’s great,” Lillard said. “Get that monkey off your back. Our past two postseasons were both sweeps and nobody wants to go through that.
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“But a lesser team would have kind of fallen apart after those two experiences, especially last year.
“We came in this series with our mind right. We were ready and we delivered the first blow.”
Game 2 takes place in Portland and you can watch it live on Sky Sports Arena in the early hours of Wednesday morning from 3:30am
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