Lowe’s winners and losers: Russ, Dame, unsung heroes and the Warriors

With the first round nearly over, let’s cruise through some winners and losers — with a focus on teams we haven’t written about yet, or aren’t writing about ahead of Round 2.

The only important question for the Thunder after their third straight post-Kevin Durant flameout is whether this season signals the beginning of a long-term decline for Westbrook — and what, if anything, they can do if they believe it does.

It’s not really that Westbrook — after four knee surgeries in six years — is perhaps the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever. He is, but that’s almost trivial — a punchline. He has always been a bad 3-point shooter; he’s just worse now, so bricky that opponents are braver taking an extra step away from him when he doesn’t have the ball. And as has been the case for the entirety of his career — see last season’s version of this same column — Westbrook has never been much interested in making himself useful when he doesn’t have the ball.

Paul George is the only long-range threat Thunder opponents guard off the ball. George running a pick-and-roll is the NBA’s “Jon Snow wielding a sword alone against an entire charging army” meme.

The real issue is that Westbrook’s shot has deserted him inside the arc. He emerged as an MVP candidate in part because he became reliable — 40 percent-plus — on what he calls his “cotton shot” from the elbow.

He hit 32 percent on jumpers from between 15 and 19 feet this season, per NBA.com. Of 104 players who attempted at least three pull-up jumpers per game, Westbrook ranked 104th in accuracy. Against Portland, he alternated between looking afraid to take them, and burying the Thunder under a pile of endless misses.

His dunks are down, and he could not always summon the explosive midair fury that once busted conventional defenses.

The Blazers dropped Enes Kanter far back in the pick-and-roll, and dared Westbrook to blow through him. Westbrook couldn’t do it.

His defense, overrated for years, came and went even in one of his most focused seasons. Portland’s monster Game 5 fourth-quarter comeback started with a sloppy Westbrook closeout on CJ McCollum in the right corner, opening the door for an easy floater — a sequence that would be repeated on the opposite side four-plus minutes later. He still dies on screens, loitering around half court.

In his MVP season, the Thunder could not survive without him. This season, they were a disaster whenever Westbrook played without George — while thriving in the opposite scenario. That continued in the playoffs; the Thunder were plus-13 in 39 George-only minutes against the Blazers. Portland obliterated them by 33 points in 32 Westbrook solo minutes, per NBA.com.

Westbrook is still a very good player. I selected him third-team All-NBA. He’s just not as good as he used to be. He lost some of what made him an MVP candidate, and refined none of the weak spots in his game.

His mega-max contract runs through 2022-23, when Westbrook will be 34. The Thunder are capped out through at least 2020-21. Setting aside the James Harden trade — yeah, I know — Sam Presti has used magic to keep this thin, rickety roster afloat. He thinks years in advance, and tracks devalued young players — Victor Oladipo, for instance — because he knows they will carry trade cachet if an opportunity arises. He has somehow turned disgruntled players and bad contracts into semi-helpful things: Reggie Jackson became Enes Kanter became Carmelo Anthony became Dennis Schroder. When does the music stop?

A poor shooter needs shooters around him. Oklahoma City has been thin on shooting for Presti’s entire run. His track record suggests a fetish for long, defense-first tweeners, and some faith the Thunder can teach such players to shoot. They have failed. Andre Roberson was dynamic enough on defense to thrive in the highest-stakes moments, but he’s hurt. Most of the other long-shot bets busted.

Most late first-round picks bust. Most “second draft” prospects — e.g., Dion Waiters — just are what they are. If shooters who could survive on defense were easy to find, every team would have a bunch.

But good teams stay good as their stars age because they nail a couple of long-shot bets. One of the Thunder’s stars — the remaining foundational Thunder star, the one they in many ways chose over Harden — appears to be aging, and aging badly. Presti surely has a plan, even as he appears pinned in by cap realities. Let’s see what it is.

A lesser team — hell, most teams — would have broken apart after the four-game humiliation New Orleans inflicted on Portland a year ago. The Blazers didn’t run from it. They took time to hurt. They acknowledged weakness. And then, they fortified themselves.

They didn’t overhaul their system, on either end. They got better at it, and added new wrinkles. Lillard came back with new ways to skirt trapping defenses. They stormed out of the gate, survived a hellish winter schedule, and surged again in March and April. They believed, even after losing Jusuf Nurkic — their second-best player for much of the season.

They knew they could win, but also that they could lose without fracturing. Losing no longer scared them. “There’s nothing for us to be afraid of,” CJ McCollum told me in November, “because the worst has already happened.”

They were ready for Oklahoma City’s blitzing defense. Lillard picked the Thunder apart. He wore down the redoubtable Steven Adams. On one Lillard pick-and-roll midway through the third quarter of Portland’s pivotal Game 4 win, Adams failed to rumble beyond the 3-point arc. Lillard, perhaps surprised by the open space in front of him, walked into an easy triple to put Portland up 12.

Billy Donovan then shifted Adams away from Portland’s screen-setters, and had him guard Maurice Harkless off to the side. It was surrender. It was merciful. A year ago, Lillard’s confidence melted under pressure from New Orleans’ trapping defense. You could see it. He broke. This time around, he broke the Thunder.

The whole team played with poised ruthlessness. McCollum cooked pull-up jumpers, and rescued wobbly all-bench units. Portland’s guards will never have classic postseason size, but the ability to make tough shots — to make something from nothing — is a must-have playoff skill, too. Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers’ quiet soul, did a little of everything. Harkless scrounged for double digits. Bit players stepped up.

The Blazers spent the season asking: Why not us? Why can’t we be the second-best team in the Western Conference? Why can’t we make the conference finals?

But perhaps even they didn’t realize what they were really asking: If Durant departs Golden State, why can’t we challenge for the NBA Finals?

Maybe they’ll never get there. Nurkic has a long recovery ahead. Zach Collins looks like a guy who can make the leap, but actually making it is a different thing. The cap is strangling them. They are always one bad playoff matchup from facing the same old questions about the smallish LIllard-McCollum backcourt.

But right now, the Blazers look like a case study in persistence — proof there is value in staying good in a league that too often disparages prolonged goodness.

If you paid attention during the regular season, you knew White was good. I’m not sure anyone expected him to work as San Antonio’s best player for much of its series against Denver, with a 36-point eruption in Game 3 that stood as the best single-game performance of the first round — a two-way masterpiece that bordered on perfection — until Lillard’s 50-pointer.

Foul trouble slowed White in Game 5. Tiny cracks emerged in his defense. But zoom out, and the Spurs must be thrilled with how at home he looks in the postseason hothouse.

The Nuggets are ignoring him off the ball — White will have to shoot better from deep eventually — but it hasn’t mattered. When his man dips into the paint to help, White skulks a few feet left or right, girds himself for a pass, and charges into the lane before his defender can figure out where he has gone. He reduced Jamal Murray to a quivering, uncertain mess, head turning frantically upon realizing he had sprinted to where White no longer was. (Denver has since hid Murray on lesser threats.)

Once on the move, White has overwhelmed every Denver guard with sheer physicality. If he can’t get around them, he just drives through them.

On defense, White is doing everything the Nuggets need someone to do against him. He helps and recovers on a string, head up, never losing track of the ball or his man. He thinks one step ahead of the offense. I mean, look at this:

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