The Golden State Warriors defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 113-112, at the Moda Center on Sunday night, dropping Portland's record to 43-24.
Proportionally, the final six seconds of an NBA game are exactly equal to the final minute of the work day for someone clocking a standard eight-hour shift. When Blazers forward Nicolas Batum stepped to the free throw line against the Warriors down two with six seconds remaining, then, this was his 4:59 p.m.
For the first seven hours and 59 minutes of his day, Batum was in the running for Employee of the Month, pitching in for a coworker who was out sick, taking on a tough PowerPoint presentation, and even closing a few big sales that everyone has been hounding him about. Making his free throws would have meant staying at the office a little later than usual, but considering the circumstances, it would have been worth it.
Unfortunately, at precisely 4:59 p.m. he inadvertently lit a fire in the wastepaper basket, and then it spread to the conference room before he had time to grab the extinguisher and, the next thing you know, he was left to face a line of firefighters and concerned citizens -- media and fans -- in front of a burned out table, looking and sounding as if he had just endured one of the roughest work days of his career.
Hoops can break hearts and spoil nights so very, very quickly.
"Good," Batum said glumly, when asked how his second free throw attempt felt upon release. "I was surprised I missed it, actually."
After that missed attempt, which would have tied the game at 113 and given Golden State one final possession before overtime, a rebounding scramble ensued, and Batum came out of the pile with the ball. This was not the position anyone would expect to find himself just moments after releasing a free throw, but here he was, with 3.5 seconds left, and his back turned to the basket, and Warriors guard Klay Thompson all over him. Feeling the urgency of the moment, he flipped up a three-pointer with his body facing the sideline. This was all reaction and no planning; the high-arcing shot fell well short, and it came back to earth before time expired but after Portland could have conceivably put up another prayer.
"You saw it, [I] tried to get the rebound, missed the shot, that's it," he said, wanting the debriefing to be done as quickly as possible.
At no point after securing the ball, Batum admitted, did the idea of calling a timeout so that Portland could get its bearings come to his mind.
"It went so quick," he said, making it clear that he didn't believe he was fouled by Thompson on his three. "I hadn't even thought about [calling timeout], actually."
The victory slipped away for Portland in that clank, in that scramble, and in that chuck over those final few seconds, as did a chance at the headlines for Batum, who posted 23 points (on 7-for-13 shooting), 14 rebounds, five assists and three steals. He hit five three-pointers in his game-high 42 minutes, including a cool go-ahead shot with a little more than four minutes remaining, and he even mixed in some off-the-dribble opportunity creation for himself. He was on the foul line to begin with because he had outworked Andre Iguodala on the glass to grab an offensive rebound, smartly flipping up a putback shot through contact to get a whistle. 4:59 p.m. can be brutal sometimes.
It's now been nearly two months since Portland last beat a Western Conference playoff team, and Blazers' wins have turned to losses during the fourth quarter in more ways than you can count. Although comparing late-game meltdowns is a bit like comparing divorces -- "My third ex-wife was so much easier going when it came to the whole child custody thing compared to the first two" -- the LaMarcus Aldridge-less Blazers did plenty of good things en route to the conclusion.
Indeed, "meltdown" is way too strong: the Blazers conceded 69 points in the second half -- including a whopping 51 points on 27 shots to the Stephen Curry and Thompson combination -- but they avoided major droughts on offense, and they definitely didn't cave. Golden State had go-ahead baskets on three occasions in the game's final 2:30, and Portland responded all three times with scoring plays of its own. David Lee made a tough layup; Damian Lillard worked for two free throws. Thompson hit a big three-pointer with less than a minute to play; Lillard threw down a huge dunk, the Blazers came up with a turnover, and Lillard hit another pair of free throws. Thompson nailed another three-pointer, and Lillard attacked the hoop early, missing a layup but leaving enough time for a second-chance opportunity like the one Batum created with his offensive rebound.
"I don't think this one was really a let up, the way the other games were last week," said Lillard, who posted a team-high 26 points (on 8-for-22 shooting) and seven assists. "This was a good [Warriors] team making shots. We didn't come down [and] turn the ball over. We got good looks. It was a game where they played the better game down the stretch."
Some of the Warriors' shots were downright spectacular. Even before Thompson's back-to-back knockout threes, there was plenty of Splash Brothers highlight reel material, as Golden State's two guards combined to score 30 of Golden State's 36 points in the final period. Everything came on jumpers or at the foul stripe, as neither Curry nor Thompson scored a point in the paint during the game's final 17 minutes.
"We did what we could," Lillard said of Portland's perimeter defense. "[Curry] has the ball in his hands so much. We tried to keep him on one side but they've got so many shooters that you've got to space out [defensively]. He came off [the screens], for a big man in that position, it's tough. He's probably the best shooter in the league, when he gets those shots coming off pick-and-rolls, he's going to make them."
The "whoaaaaa" moment of the "whoa" quarter came when the undersized Curry fought to claim his only steal of the game before bringing the ball up somewhat leisurely in transition. Using a hesitation move to get himself towards the left corner, he went behind his back from left to right to gain a rhythm before going behind his back from right to left to absolutely shake Matthews. Now open, if only briefly, he calmly drained one of his six three-pointers on the night. Then, not too far from where LeBron James once spanked himself, Curry executed a shorts-tugging power squat celebration to underline the end-to-end play.
"He's a superstar," Matthews said of Curry, who would finish with 37 points (on 11-for-24 shooting), five assists and four rebounds after going scoreless for the game's first 20 minutes.
"To get up 18 against a tough team that's playing desperate and right behind us in the standings [and lose], it's upsetting," Matthews continued. "Last year, we get down and we were almost expecting to lose. We don't feel that way this year. We're confident. We've won a lot of late games. We just didn't close the door. You have to close the door on a team like this, more than one time, because they're going to keep firing, keep shooting and keep coming back at you."
That the Warriors did, and they took advantage of the Blazers' slip-ups. Portland coach Terry Stotts and guard Mo Williams both received technical fouls in the fourth quarter, gifting two points to Golden State. One of Lee's baskets was set up by a beautiful pass from Harrison Barnes, who was commanding more defensive attention than necessary; Thompson's final three-pointer was set up by the Blazers sucking in on a Curry drive, opening up the opportunity for a bang-bang passing sequence from Curry to Barnes to Thompson. The Warriors made the Blazers pay for these flubs, as experienced playoff teams do, and that fact left the Blazers locker room with plenty of sagging shoulders and blank countenances.
"They've done it before," Batum said of Curry and Thompson. "Sometimes you can put two hands on them, and they'll make the shot anyway. Wes did a good job on Steph Curry at the end. They make tough shots, that's what they do."
Just as "almost" can be one of life's most distressing sensations, "barely" can often feel perfect.
"That's as good of a win as we've had in three years," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. "In the first half, we were selfish offensively and defensively. ... I'm awfully proud of them because it would have been very easy to fold our tent and hang our heads."
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 20,063 (a sellout). It was quite full with a number of Warriors fans mixed into the crowd.
- NBA.com has your video highlights.
- Blazersedge is running our annual NCAA bracket challenge again this year. Information is right here. Winner gets a prize, a name-check on the front page, and huge bragging rights because there's usually 500+ people entered in the contest. Sign up and invite your friends! Sorry, the name "Thomas Robinson's Lunch Meat" has already been taken -- by me -- so you'll have to come up with something else/better.
- LaMarcus Aldridge was walking without a wheelchair, crutches or any crazy limp and/or hunch after the game. Past that, no formal update on his status after his recent back injury.
- I noted earlier this season how the Blazers removed hundreds of seats from the back of the 200 and 300 levels, leaving large concrete walls and open walkways that needed some housekeeping attention. Along one side of the 200 level, the concrete wall has been freshly painted black. Blazers president Chris McGowan mentioned that removing the seats would give them the opportunity to do something visually in that space, so we'll see what shows up on top of the black paint. I realize this is a pretty irrelevant matter but the black paint did look a lot better. Yes, I also realize I'm the last person who should be giving interior design advice after the No. 1 feedback to some of the webcam videos we posted over the years was, "Why are the walls of your living room completely white?"
- Until Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson went nuts, the story of this game was Portland's small lineup, especially Dorell Wright, forcing David Lee from the game. Warriors coach Mark Jackson pulled his two-time All-Star forward early in the second half and sat him until midway through the fourth quarter, a decision that was prompted by two quick Wright threes after the break.
- Lee's night was one of the more unusual you will see. He attempted nine shots in the first quarter -- as the Warriors force-fed him the ball possession after possession against smaller defenders -- and then he had just six shots the rest of the way. I joked on Twitter during the opening minutes of the game that Lee's parents must be loving the play-calling, and I imagine by eary in the fourth quarter they were ready to sign a "Fire Mark Jackson!" petition.
- I had this mental image of Jermaine O'Neal and Lee reminiscing on the sidelines during the second half. "Man, back in the day, I made six straight All-Star Games from 2002 to 2007," I could hear the 35-year-old O'Neal tell Lee. "I hear you," Lee responded. "I remember in, like, the first quarter, when I actually got to play. Those were good times, good times."
- Lee got the last laugh with two timely layups in the game's closing minutes. Still, his absence made for an interesting comparison with the Blazers, who have fared much better than I would have expected (and the stats would have projected) without Aldridge.
- Mo Williams surprised everyone by returning early from a hip strain, joining Meyers Leonard in the "totally beat the recovery timeline" club. Hard to think of a better way to get back into the action than by laying out for a steal that keyed a transition dunk for Wright. There was also a nice flip pass over his head, which led to a Nicolas Batum dunk and a rare second-quarter standing ovation. Williams finished with 12 points (on 5-for-10 shooting) and four assists but had a rough turnover with less than two minutes remaining and the game tied at 107.
- What have I been saying about those two-handed alley-oop catches that end with the one-handed finish? Will Barton had a nice one, with the extension. Video here.
- With the notable exception of one open court dribbling exhibition, in which he put himself alongside other great Australian ball-handlers like Kyrie Irving and Patty Mills, Warriors center Andrew Bogut (six points, seven rebounds) often looked a step slow against Robin Lopez (14 points, 10 rebounds).
- Terry Stotts went to some ultra-small lineups with Thomas Robinson at the center position and you will rarely see an offense take such an outside-in approach. It's crazy and a bit intoxicating how much space can be created with Batum or Wright at the four plus three shooters, and Portland likely would have held on had Jackson took a conventional approach and stuck with Lee, whose 16 points (on 8-for-15 shooting) are easier to manage than Golden State's perimeter attack.
- I've been pining off and on for awhile for more small lineups this season and I would be surprised if Stotts doesn't go to that during the postseason, using Aldridge as the five or going with super small reserve groups when he's on the bench. It may well prove to be their best chance to overcome teams with depth, experience and talent advantages.
- Klay Thompson made it to the Moda Center in time for the game after flying in from the Bahamas, where he was attending the funeral of his grandfather. After the game, he said: "Emotionally, [I'm] a little drained. It's been a long weekend. ... I honestly felt fresh when I stepped on the court."
- Jackson on Thompson: "He's a big time player. There's no question about it. He's as cool as they come. It does not bother him making and missing shots. He's not afraid to take the next one. To think about what he's gone through the last 48 hours, to think about the travel, the fatigue mentally and physically, and to think he had to guard [Damian] Lillard the bulk of the time .... the way he came out of it, awfully proud of him."
- Matthews on what makes Curry so hard to defend: "The way he plays is unconventional. He's not a guy that they have to run a set for him, he's going to come off a screen, catch it and then isolate at this spot. He has the ball from the moment they inbound the ball, with the ultimate green light."
- Here's a nice GIF -- via Matt Moore of CBSSports.com -- of Curry shaking Matthews. Impossible to guard that.
- Matthews compared Portland's March 2014 struggles to the team's struggles in March 2013: "It's not the same situation as it was last year. At this point in the season [in 2013], we were packing our bags. This time, we're trying to move and position ourselves."
- Lillard was focused on the positives after this one, even though he was decked by a number of picks and couldn't get his potential game-tying layup to go late: "[The Warriors] could easily be a No. 3 team in the West, that's the type of team they are. It was a tough game. A lot of these games are going to come down to the last two or three minutes. I thought we did a good job. We missed some shots but we made plays and gave ourselves a chance. Overall, we played a better game [than we did] over the last seven or eight games. ... We always have confidence. This game was a step up from how we've been playing. The energy was there, guys came off the bench and played well. We played a good game. [The Warriors] exploded in the third quarter."
- Batum agreed that the team's confidence is still intact: "Why should we not be [confident]? We don't have our best player [LaMarcus Aldridge], we don't have Joel [Freeland]. We lost against a good team in the West. They played all their players, they won by one. So we're good."
- Lillard's final minute dunk over Harrison Barnes was big. Video here via YouTube user G4NBAVideos.
- Terry Stotts on his technical foul, which came with roughly six minutes left in regulation: "I didn't say anything. I just pointed at the other end. I think [referee] Tony [Brothers] was just trying to make a point."
- As the season gets deeper and deeper, the amount of time that elapses between the moment that Nicolas Batum lets go of an ill-advised pass and the moment the Moda Center crowd collectively groans continues to decrease. We're approaching zero.
- Signs: "Curry is an Indian dish and Rip City is hungry," "Don't mess with Mr. O," "Here Comes Batum," "Blazer Believers," "Will the Thrill," "Bingo Bango Bongo Baby," "BFF -- Blazers Fans Forever," "The Luck of O'Damian," and "My first game: Please win!"
- Comedian Dan Aykroyd, who is friends with owner Paul Allen, was in attendance. He's been Allen's guest before. Photo via Bruce Ely of The Oregonian right here.
- NFL player and former Oregon Ducks football player LaMichael James got a hearty round of applause.
- The JumboTron did a "St. Patrick's Hair Cam" where they superimposed an orange beard and a green hat over shots of various fans around the arena.
- Draymond Green's foul-out with more than 10 minutes remaining is one of the earliest I can remember seeing in person in years.
- Last week, prior to Aldridge's back injury, I wrote about five All-Stars facing pressure once the postseason rolls around. Aldridge was one of the five.
- The most common question I'm getting in radio interviews and panicky emails is: "Are the Blazers going to blow this and miss the playoffs?" It's incredibly unlikely. The postseason cut-off line should be around 46 or 47 wins in the West. Simply beating Milwaukee, Orlando, New Orleans, Sacramento and Utah will take Portland to 48.
- The Blazers have not beaten a Western Conference playoff team since the team's Twitter account wrote to the Pacers' Twitter account: "So, see you guys in June?" back on Jan. 20. Since that date, Portland is 12-15 overall, which makes them the only West playoff team with a sub-.500 record during that time period. They are also 0-12 against West playoff teams. Portland has only three games remaining against West playoff teams, and two of them are the final two games of the season.
- Random, but funny: if you haven't seen former Blazers guard Jarrett Jack's thoughts on the sleeved jerseys, you're missing out.
- No updates on the Chalupas/McMuffins. Imagine how excited we're going to be once there's an update.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It's disappointing to lose another close game. I thought we played a good game, Stephen Curry got hot in the second half. We had some miscommunication on giving up some threes, we've got to figure out ways to close out a game. Realize, when we have a 16 or 18 point lead, we can't let our foot off the gas. Steph Curry, he's done that before and we couldn't get him under control.
Stopping Stephen Curry
He's done that a few times in his career. You can say you can trap him, but that opens up other guys rolling to the basket, opens up other three-point shooters. I thought Wes did a good job on him towards the end of the fourth quarter. We did a good job on him in the first half. To be honest, I thought the shots he made in the second half were tougher than the ones he missed in the first.
Stephen Curry's play-making as key to setting up other guys late
Some of them. The last three Thompson got, he penetrated, we committed to him, he got to the lane, kicked it out, extra pass, for another three. With a team that can shoot it like that, it's kind of pick your poison. We did a good job -- they only had 17 assists in a high scoring game. A lot of the stuff they did was off the dribble or one on one.
Call a timeout late?
It all happened so fast. The earliest he could have called timeout was at 2.5. It's a split-second. You grab the ball, it's easy to say what you should have done, but he made a hell of an effort to get it. You've got to make a split-second decision. It's tough when the clock is counting down. Who is to say if we had a timeout or not, if we had called timeout on that, but it was a good effort on that to come up with the ball.
Low confidence late in games?
It doesn't seem like it to me. We're still playing hard. A bounce of the ball here or there and i don't think it's a question of confidence.
Late technical fouls
My technical, I didn't say anything. I just pointed at the other end. I think Tony was just trying to make a point. You don't want to give up points. It's easy to look back at a one-point game and look at where points came from.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter