After a nip-and-tuck ramble through four quarters against the Golden State Warriors, the Portland Trail Blazers fell to 1-2 on the season tonight, losing a 95-90 heart-breaker that was both closer and farther away than the score indicated. The Blazers showed well in a couple categories, keeping the Warriors in their sights all game long. But instead of allowing us to spin the tale of a marathon runner marking and passing his opponent in the 26th mile, Portland's late-game errors left us with a cautionary lesson about playing with fire and getting burned.
The opening minutes of this game saw both teams playing fast and loose to little effect. Like two puppies let off their leashes after long confinement, the Blazers and Warriors gamboled around the court. This led to plenty of exciting plays and almost no actual points scored. A Wesley Matthews layup provided the only field goal in the first 2:38 of play, a span in which the teams combined for a dozen shot attempts. Turnovers, missed layups, lightning threes, and blocked shots strewed the court alongside Matthews' make, providing entertainment but little impact.
After that both teams settled down into more predictable styles. The Warriors went Bash Brothers, letting Klay Thompson and Steph Curry pursue their respective matchup battles. The Blazers, meanwhile, went as flat as last week's soda pop. Portland continued to turn over the ball, let Curry loose in the lane, couldn't cover Thompson, failed to negotiate screens (a familiar story, but come on...it's the Warriors), and generally looked like they were reacting instead of enacting. Nicolas Batum saved his team with rebounds and general hustle. LaMarcus Aldridge kept the scoreboard moving from the foul line despite firing 1-6 in the period. Other than that, the Warriors had their way. Propelled by Thompson's 10 points Golden State led 30-22 at the end of one.
The second period started much as the first ended, with the Warriors wearing out mismatches (notably against Portland guards, starting and reserve) and tearing the Blazers apart. As Golden State went deeper into their bench the tide turned. Miscues followed bad shots for the Warriors as the Blazers got busy with hands and feet and put the opponent under pressure for the first time in the game. The result was a delicious 11-0 run punctuated by layups, alley-oops, and general mayhem. Golden State recovered when their starting guards returned to the game but Matthews took a page out of their book, exploiting his defenders, spotting up for threes when he played on the weak side, and keeping his team in hot pursuit. Golden State still led 51-48 at the half but the forced turnovers had done their job for Portland. Even the Bash Brothers can't hit shots they never get to take.
The Blazers tried out Aldridge again to start the third but the Warriors committed to double-teaming the ball out of his hands, much to Portland's dismay. Portland's offense would be catch-as-catch can during the period. They looked less secure, more turnover-prone...it wasn't an authoritative way to begin the half.
Though they weren't fantastic on defense in the period, the Blazers still managed to hold the Warriors to a paltry 17 points. Portland began to switch on screens instead of following the dribbler. This left them in awkward mismatches but at least they were able to keep men in front of jump shooters. Golden State starters settled for long shots. When those began spraying off the rim, they apparently couldn't believe it. So they shot another. And another. And another. It was like the rims didn't know they were Golden State or something. Eventually the Warriors bench returned to the same rousing lack of success they had enjoyed in the first half. The result was a semi-ugly quarter (or titanic defensive battle, whichever) which Portland won 20-17. That left the score knotted at 68 heading into the final frame.
The Warriors started the fourth by emptying every defensive specialist they could find off their bench. They must have figured if they weren't going to score with their reserves, at least the Blazers wouldn't either. Wes Matthews was having none of that. With a helping hand from Steve Blake, Matthews blasted out 5 quick points to start the period. When Blake hit a three himself with 8:32 remaining in the game, the Blazers finally had a lead...albeit by 2 points. Had they been able to contain Golden State's penetration (or just about any shot from Leandro Barbosa) they might have been able to take control of the game at that juncture. But they couldn't. When Curry and Thompson checked back in the game with 5:37 remaining, Portland's edge was only 80-79.
As the game wound down Thompson continued his winning ways, scoring 7 points in the last 3:20. But this time the Blazers had an answer. Portland's penetration and three-point shooting had made the Warriors skittish enough to cease their pre-programmed double-teaming of Aldridge. Instead of relying on guards down the stretch as they had in their last two games, the Blazers fed their big man. He delivered with 10 points to close the game, out-dueling Thompson for Game Hero status.
The two teams traded minuscule leads in the final 3 minutes, culminating in an Andre Iguodala drive with 26 seconds remaining and the Warriors down 88-90. Iguodala was fouled and stepped to the line with potential to tie the game. He hit only 1 of 2. The Warriors still trailed by 1 with 26 seconds remaining, Portland ball.
Knowing Golden State would foul, Terry Stotts put in his best ball-handling, free-throw-shooting lineup. No centers, no liabilities, no fooling around. This was it. It was time for the Blazers to show the mettle they displayed in so many close games last year. It was time to hit the clutch and go home.
Here we go. Clutch depressed.
Ka-THUNK. Ka-THUNK. Ka-THUNK. Pffffft.
Matthews got trapped on the inbounds play, couldn't get away cleanly, and the rock squirted loose from his hands. After a scramble on the floor instant replay showed that the ball had brushed Steve Blake's buttocks before rolling out of bounds. Golden State ball.
The Warriors took a couple ticks off the clock before (who else?) Thompson hit a nice floater to put them up 91-90 with 8 seconds remaining.
Ok...NOW it was time to hit the clutch. Come on, Dame! Come on, LaMarcus! Just put your foot in, press the gas, start easing off...
Ka-THUNK. Ka-THUNK. Ka-THUNK. Pffffft.
Aldridge lost the ball to Draymond Green. The Blazers were forced to foul Curry (an approximately 2000% free throw shooter) to get possession back. Curry sank both free throws. Golden State led 93-90 with 4 seconds left. The Blazers had no timeouts, but the deficit was still only 3 points...a single shot. Portland does this better than anyone else. It was time...to hit...the clutch! Seriously, it's not that hard. You'll get the feel of it. Left foot in on pedal, right foot goes down as left foot comes up. Car goes in gear and then...
Ka-THUNK. Ka-THUNK. Ka-THUNK. Pffffft.
Steph Curry stole the pass with 2 seconds remaining and got fouled again. As he hit the final free throws Portland's car rolled backwards down the hill and exploded in a mighty ball of flame. Their final three meaningful possessions had come up turnover...turnover...turnover. The Warriors left Moda Center with a 95-90 win.
Kids nowadays! Learn to drive a stick.
The Blazers can take a couple positives from this game. Their offensive rebounding was masterful. That's a good sign, since Portland's offense depends heavily on same. They also forced 17 turnovers. Their defense has lacked that facet heretofore. If they can continue that trend they'll become much more credible on that end of the court.
Aldridge and Matthews also provided brilliant moments in individual matchup offense. They look confident, taking attempts well within their comfort zone.
Portland's bench played credibly tonight. If it weren't for their little Leandro Barbosa problem in the fourth, they might have turned the game.
On the other hand the Blazers suffered from any number of defensive maladies, few of which stemmed from the expected difficulty of denying the three-point arc to Golden State shooters. The Warriors managed only 32% from the arc tonight, connecting on only 6 threes total. But the Blazers once again played Polaroid defense, exposing the lane in less than 10 seconds to any opponent willing to shake a little bit. Robin Lopez played a great game but collected 5 personal fouls in 27 minutes thanks to this phenomenon.
You also have to believe that switching on screens is tantamount to a sign of surrender for this team...unless, of course, you like the idea of Aldridge watching Curry all alone at the three-point arc. It was almost like a "throw it against the wall and see if it sticks" move. The Warriors did miss shots against those switches but it wasn't for lack of trying and it didn't look sustainable from Portland's end. Then again, most of their screen defense doesn't look sustainable...one of the few chronic problems hamstringing this roster.
Portland got exposed a little when they subbed in guards as well. Neither Blake nor Will Barton could defend consistently at off-guard. Lillard manning the point next to Blake made the situation worse. The Blazers have got to put points on the board when those backcourt subs come in or they're going to get sliced apart by anybody with guards who can score.
Committing 19 turnovers themselves wasted Portland's busy hands on defense. The game ending as it did was icing on that cake.
Finally, and frankly, even had the Blazers won tonight (and I thought they would until the very final seconds) I was prepared to write that they "escaped" with a win. Outside of that run in the third period and Aldridge's 3-minute barrage in the fourth, the Blazers didn't look like they had, or wanted, control of the court. They were late. They got themselves isolated on both ends of the floor. Heroic individual efforts came sporadically and had no lasting effect because the overall foundation wouldn't support them. This team has still not clicked this year. A win tonight would have eased the consequences but wouldn't have changed that assessment. Small comfort, but maybe a loss will wake up the team sooner? Blazer fans will hope so.
Fun With Numbers
- Aldridge scored 26 but Thompson scored 29. This is the third straight game an opponent has gone off on the Blazers big-time: Russell Westbrook for 38, Rudy Gay for 40, and now Klay.
- The Blazers shot 26% from the arc. Not good.
- Portland ceded the free-throw advantage to the Warriors, once again the result of not being able to keep dribblers out of the lane. Golden State shot 17-21. (Though to be fair, it would have been 13-17 without Curry's possession FT's in the final seconds.) The Blazers might have overcome that but they shot only 9-14 (64%) from the foul line themselves.
- Offensive Rebounds: Portland 17, Golden State 7...awesome.
- Fast Break Points: Portland 16, Golden State 13...pretty awesome.
- Turnovers: Portland 19, Golden State 17...not awesome. The Blazers just don't do that.