The Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors put on an amazing demonstration of basketball tonight, showcasing everything wonderful about the NBA on their way to a 119-117 overtime classic that should be shown on a replay loop for the next decade. Between them the teams featured everything: intensity, inspired defense, deadeye shooting, breakaways, and more lead changes than the Dewey-Truman presidential race. The Trail Blazers prevailed at the final buzzer but not without plenty of nail-biting moments and a little welcome help from the basketball gods. Nevertheless the victory ensured that the Blazers will finish no lower than 5th in the Western Conference this season. The possibility of 4th place, and homecourt advantage, remains alive provided Portland wins its 82nd game and the Houston Rockets do not win either of their remaining games. As a result of this win the Rockets are now assured as Portland's first-round foe.
The intensity on the floor was palpable in this game from the get-go. Both teams came out charged. Portland's offense took a while to get in gear. They looked over-anxious almost, forcing shots out of solo sets. The defense looked fine, more engaged than in most first quarters. The Warriors scored but their shots were contested and honest.
Portland trailed 14-9 when the first real twist of the game came into play. Seldom have the Blazers been able to trumpet their bench this season, but Portland's hybrid starter--reserve lineups destroyed the Warriors' hockey-line substitutes tonight. The difference in Golden State's performance was night and day. Their starting lineup kept the Blazers spinning, their effectiveness increasing as the night progressed. But everything the starters built those reserves gave back with interest.
In some ways the difference can be boiled down to Andrew Bogut versus any other center the Warriors fielded tonight. Bogut had Portland's Robin Lopez tied in knots. He became one of the only centers this season to make Lopez look silly without pulling him out of the lane with jumpers. Bogut detained Lopez, made smart passes while Robin was locked tight, kept him off the boards and away from any help defense. It was a massacre. But as soon as Bogut sat Lopez had a field day scoring off the pick and roll and keeping the Warriors out of the lane. Nobody else could bother him.
Mo Williams also had a titanic night (with a small "t"...he can go either way). He started off with a couple of his trademark sneaky jumpers and spent the rest of the game hitting shots most folks wouldn't attempt unguarded in a game of H-O-R-S-E. It's not like the Warriors let him go. They kept tight to him. But his offense outshone their defense like Christina Hendricks standing next to a 20-watt bulb.
The 5-point deficit Portland's bench inherited midway through the first period became a 7-point lead before the second got too old. At no point did Golden State Head Coach Mark Jackson appear to panic. He let his reserves play out a full rotation. Whether that's to his credit or a sign of folly remains debatable. As soon as his starters returned the scoring, rebounding, defense, and general quality of each set went through the roof. Aided by Portland miscues and defensive failings, Golden State's starters turned their 7-point debt into an 8-point lead at halftime. Steph Curry scored 18 points in the period.
As usual the Blazers went to LaMarcus Aldridge at the outset of the third period and his scoring helped steady their ship. Aldridge, Williams, and Wesley Matthews would carry the Blazers through a third period that saw Golden State's Klay Thompson wake up from a first-half slumber, joining Curry in draining threes and taking names. Once again the Warriors' starters proved more than capable of fending off their Portland counterparts. Once again the Warriors' bench crumpled like a used handkerchief as the period waned. Matthews and Williams launched a flurry of threes in the final 2:30 of the third and Portland took a 76-75 lead into the final frame.
When Portland expanded their margin to 10 points in the first 3 minutes of the fourth, Jackson finally hit the Easy Button and got his starters back in the game. From that point on it was almost as if those Golden State guards had spotted Portland double-digits just to make it fair. Curry and Thompson would combine for 25 of their team's 30 points in the period, putting on a shooting display that would have made them the envy of any Wild West show in the territory.
Sustaining their 10-point lead until the 7:00 mark, the Blazers went stilted and cold. They managed only 2 field goals following, forced to survive on foul shots. The free-throw line told the story for the Blazers in the fourth. They'd score 8 from the charity stripe in the period while committing zero fouls themselves. (Not zero free-throws given up, not a whistle blown against them in the period.) 6 free throws (2 intentional) in the final 1:30 helped the Blazers survive the three-point onslaught. They led 105-102 with 12 seconds remaining in regulation and Golden State having ball in hand. Curry drew the obvious defensive attention, tossed the ball to Draymond Green, and the second-year player calmly hit a step-back three for the tie. The Blazers had a final attempt but Matthews missed a three. To overtime we went.
The extra period became a sick slug-fest as each team threw haymakers to the other's chin. Curry and Thompson accounted for all 12 Golden State points, three triples among them. They were answered by gang tackling from Portland. Matthews scored 6 but every Blazer starter put points on the board.
The penultimate exchange came with 1:10 left on the clock when Matthews hit a three followed 15 seconds later from a reply in kind from Thompson, leaving the Warriors up 117-116. Damian Lillard hit Aldridge for a jumper on the next possession and the Blazers took the lead 118-117.
The final duel ended up being a point guard contest. Curry, unable to miss for most of the second half, clanged a 17-footer (about half of his customary range) and the Warriors were forced to defend down by 1, 26 seconds left. They opted not to foul. Lillard drove the lane with 10 seconds left and drew a foul off a missed layup in traffic on which there appeared to be little contact. The suspect nature of the foul was less of an issue than the fact that it was the 6th on the red-hot Thompson, forcing him from the game. But Lillard gave the Warriors a break by hitting only 1 of 2 free throws, leaving Portland up 119-117 with 7 seconds remaining.
Following the obligatory timeout Curry tried to repeat his end-of regulation trick, drawing defenders and tossing the ball back to a shooter. Andre Iguodala ended up with a wide-open three as the clock ticked away its final seconds. It was long, Matthews grabbed and threw the rebound, and the game was over. After a heart-stopping, multiple-crescendo-building 53 minutes of action the Blazers walked away with a 2-point win in the most important game of their regular season.
Besides the victory the Blazers gave their fans plenty to love in this game. Resilience was their strongest point. The Warriors didn't just hit them, the Warriors hit them HARD. It wasn't just intensity, but intensity back by dev...a...stat...ing performances from those star guards and considerable hampering of Lopez and Lillard. The Blazers were fighting with a hand behind their backs and taking blows to the face. Giving up would have been easy. Yet they found a way to fight back and take the game.
Portland also shot 50% from the field, 42% from the arc...a pretty display. This comes with an asterisk. Golden State's shots weren't easy but they were within their normal sphere of operation. We've seen the Splash Brothers go crazy before. Some of the shots Williams and Matthews hit tonight weren't repeatable on normal nights. The Blazers provided fist-pumping moments aplenty...even a few unbridled out-of-your-chair occasions. But on a normal night those shots are misses.
Which brings us to the other side of the coin. Peel back the emotion and crazy spirit of this game and the Blazers showed weaknesses that make you worry heading into the post-season. Since only 48 minutes of basketball stand between Portland and that destination--since time is almost up--we better cover them. The Rockets will have a vested interest in inspiring a repeat performance.
First and foremost, the Blazers tried to hide Damian Lillard on the defensive end tonight. They put him on Thompson. They put him on Iguodala or Harrison Barnes at small forward. It did not work. If President Obama tongue-kissed Vladimir Putin on stage at a One Direction concert the spotlight would not be brighter than the one the Warriors put on Dame's defense tonight. Run back the tape from this game and you will see play after play after play where Lillard got burned. The Warriors got the ball to whomever he was guarding...period. They didn't even bother to disguise it. The small forwards posted him and scored. Thompson shot over him like he wasn't there. The Curry matchup wasn't close. Even when the Blazers had time to send it there wasn't enough help in the world to fix the issue. The Warriors had a huge bullseye on Lillard's back and unless they are complete fools, the Rockets are going to pull the same stunt.
Lillard has looked out of sync with the offense for a while now and that was evident tonight as well. That, at least, can be corrected. But he and his teammates better patch it up quick.
The Blazers also made procedural and mental errors as the game closed:
--As we said, Portland had zero fouls against them in the fourth period. They led 105-102 with 12 seconds left in regulation. That meant they had a foul to give with no free throw penalty before even having to make the decision about intentionally fouling the hot-three-point-shooting Warriors to prevent the tying shot. But the Blazers didn't even take the first foul...the freebie. By the time the clock would down to 4-5 seconds you'd think they'd corral somebody, make the Warriors take it out again, make them waste more time, open up the possibility of that intentional foul with not enough time on the clock to matter. Instead they watched Curry pass to Green and Green hit a three to send the game into overtime.
--The Blazers led by 1 and had possession with 26 seconds left in overtime. Golden State made an interesting decision not to foul, leaving themselves a narrow, 2-second margin to call timeout and get a final shot should they force a Portland miss. Lillard bailed them out of their time problem by starting his drive with 11 seconds on the clock. This is understandable if you're tied or down, as you want the first good shot available plus enough time left for a potential offensive rebound put-back. But when you're up a forced, long jumper at the end of the clock might be better than a drive into traffic with 10 seconds left. The ball's going to take a second to get to the rim plus the opponent has to secure the rebound. Even if they get the board cleanly the 2-second margin has dwindled to less than 1. At the very least you want to hold and bleed the clock down to 4-5 seconds before making your move. Instead Lillard left the opponent 9 seconds to operate and compounded the issue by missing 1 of the free throws, keeping the margin at 2. As I mentioned above, the foul that put him at the line, though totally understandable and even normal for the NBA under those circumstances, was also questionable. Had the refs not blown that whistle, Golden State gets the ball with 8 seconds left down by only 1 with the full range of offensive options for the win.
--On their final offensive possession the Warriors sent Curry into the lane to draw attention. Portland responded with a double, Lopez rotating over to take him and Lillard shadowing. This was totally understandable considering the hash Curry had carved them into, inside and out, for the last 29 minutes. Less understandable: Nicolas Batum also caved in to make it a triple-team on Curry. In doing so, Lillard and Batum abandoned Iguodala, leaving him wide-open at the arc for the winning three. Had Iggy's shot been an inch and a half shorter or had Thompson been on the receiving end of that pass, the result of this game would have been different. That the Blazers would intentionally leave an opponent open for a game-winning shot is inconceivable. That means somebody--Lillard or Batum--misread the situation, blew the scheme, and/or failed to communicate on the most important possession of the season...though this is not the first time we've seen it happen.
If this were Game 53 and months of playoff preparation lay ahead, we'd walk off with a standing ovation ringing in our ears and ignore the rest of this stuff. But it's not. This was Game 81, a week from the start of the post-season, and Portland's most critical moment of the year. You cannot credit Portland's never-say-die attitude and ability to pull off the narrow victory like this without also acknowledging that they are still making critical mistakes in recognition, communication, and coverage that shrink the margin enough to make that perseverance (and narrow-shave luck) necessary.
Cinderella's clock reads 11:58 right now. One more game and the coach turns into a pumpkin. I was watching an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary last night on the Knicks-Pacers Eastern Conference matchup in 1995, the one where Reggie Miller erupted for 8 points in 9 seconds to steal Game 1. Both of those teams were masterful, carrying Hall-of-Famers and heralded veterans. The series ended up going to 7 games. It was the archetype of playoff basketball. Time after time we see that even for the most solid and talented of squads, playoff series are won and lost by small mistakes: a blown rotation, a missed inbounds play...none as obvious as the ones we just laid out. Perseverance and luck only work when the field is level. The first step in benefiting from them is making sure you don't need them. The Blazers aren't there yet. Fundamental flaws and incidental--mostly unforced--errors give even their best games a, "Whew!" factor that won't translate well when games get serious. Give your playoff opponent that many opportunities to get off the hook and you're going to find 4 wins well beyond your grasp.
Asking whether they can handle the Rockets or any potential second-round opponent is secondary at this point. The more pressing question: How will they handle themselves?
Fortunately that's a matter for another night. For now, this was a memorable win in a game well-worth preserving on your DVR. The Blazers did what they have to do tonight. Now they hope that the Rockets lose to San Antonio tomorrow, setting up a Wednesday-night finale where a Portland victory over the Clippers combined with a Houston loss to New Orleans would yield homecourt advantage in the first round.
Golden State Of Mind will be calling this a classic as well, I'll wager.
Your Jersey Contest Scores and the form for the final game of the season can be found HERE.