The Portland Trail Blazers put up a heck of a fight tonight against the Golden State Warriors. Facing the best team in the NBA without LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Chris Kaman, and Wesley Matthews was no easy task. Though expected, the 122-108 defeat was demoralizing. Still the evening illuminated several truths about the Blazers, for better and worse.
Tonight's first half highlighted the scrappy, feisty, "never-say-die" Trail Blazers...the team every mom would love you to bring home. Golden State began the game in trademark fashion, looking to amp up the tempo and blow the opponent out of the building with ball movement and sweet shooting. Far from being intimidated, the Blazers looked at them, nodded, and said, "Let's go." And how they did go.
Portland's starting lineup of Damian Lillard, Arron Afflalo, Alonzo Gee, Dorell Wright, and Robin Lopez ran like lightning, forced the Warriors into turnovers, and hit open shots off of impressive passing. They stood toe to toe with the league leaders, played their style, and prospered. Through the first two quarters it almost seemed like the Warriors expected Portland to fade away after every three from Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson. Instead Damian Lillard or Dorell Wright paid back in kind, sometimes with interest.
Nor did the Blazers suffer when the second (née third) unit came in. CJ McCollum looked as comfortable as a duck in water. (Meyers Leonard looked as comfortable as a duck in underpants, but at least he rebounded.) Steve Blake passed, Joel Freeland defended, Allen Crabbe made a nuisance of himself in general. It was like every good part of Portland's lineup got distilled down to purest form and featured for two glorious quarters. Add in some decent rebounding, hustle from Lillard, and a little Gee-rated defense on Curry and what do you get? A nice little 62-57 lead for the Blazers at the half.
That lead, and the caliber of play it reflected, reminded everybody of the heart, courage, drive, desire, and talent of this Blazers' roster. Rembrant couldn't have painted a clearer picture of the qualities that make this team special.
The second half smacked of a different kind of reality, just as revealing. Here we saw the undermanned, out-gunned Blazers who, as hard as they might try, just can't stack up to the contenders in the conference in their current state.
Portland started the third period ice cold, settling for runners and long-range shots outside of the offensive flow. The Warriors hit Portland with a heavy dose of Andrew Bogut inside followed by a rain of easy layups and unguarded threes off of the pass. The Warriors served up more hot Curry than an Indian restaurant. With Draymond Green's jabs setting up Steph's uppercuts, Golden State tied the game in 150 seconds. They took the lead a minute later and pushed it to double-digits before the clock read 5:00 left in the third.
Coach Terry Stotts tried all kinds of lineups to stop the bleeding: Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard, CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, and a 6'5"-and-Under-League fivesome of Lillard, McCollum, Afflalo, Gee, and Crabbe. Nothing worked. The Blazers made a push or two but the Warriors would not be moved. Portland fans know exactly what those "hope-spot" runs look like; they saw plenty from inferior teams earlier in the year when the Blazers were healthy and toying with elite status. Tonight the shoe was on the other foot, colored blue and gold.
When the buzzer sounded on the 122-108 loss, Warriors fans throughout the Moda Center cheered lustily. The game portrait showed two teams headed in opposite directions, with theirs on the better road.
Portland fans were left reflecting that this is one heck of a fun team to root for, but that the end of the regular season might also bring an end to the fun times. Despite the spirited first half, this game wasn't close. The Warriors knew exactly what they were doing, putting the Blazers in a third-quarter submission hold and hanging on long past the point that their opponent should have tapped. Unless the Blazers get healthier over the next three weeks--not just making-do healthy, but start-of-season healthy--they're going to have a hard time carving out space in the post-season melee. Portland could sneak out another first-round win. They might discover emergent talent off the bench along the way. But those are small victories in the big picture. The bell just tolled on the Blazers' chances of fulfilling their pre-season dreams without health, without vigor, and without a pretty good matchup. Whether Portland will get any of those, and for how long, remains an open question.
The Warriors shot 60% from the field tonight, 46% from the arc. They scored 52 in the paint and 20 on the break. Even at full strength the Blazers wouldn't have been able to overcome those numbers. Then again, at full strength the Blazers probably wouldn't have allowed the Warriors to get them.
Even though they're exaggerated because of the Warriors' talent, those stats aren't totally out of line with opponent performances over the last week. This wasn't a case of the Blazers not having enough bodies and finding their strengths turned to weaknesses. This was a case of the Blazers not having enough bodies and finding their weaknesses turned into big old glaring weaknesses.
Damian Lillard scored 29 points off of 6-11 three-point shooting. He shot 9-21 overall with 7 rebounds and 5 assists. It was an impressive outing, especially since the Warriors knew where he'd be coming from. 4 turnovers and mixed defense dimmed the performance a little, but those aren't new. Lillard did make more of a defensive stand than we're used to seeing, but it wasn't enough. Still, nobody can fault him for the effort tonight.
Dorell Wright and Alonzo Gee both did well...incredibly well during certain stretches. Wright hit a couple threes and buzzed around the court on defense, scoring 12 with 5 rebounds in 21 minutes without a personal foul or turnover to his name. Gee defended Curry well, got free for multiple dunks, and hit 5-10 from the field as a result. You couldn't have asked for more from players getting marginal minutes suddenly thrust into the starting lineup. Both of these guys are heady veterans and the Blazers are lucky to have them right now.
Arron Afflalo had a rough night all around, hitting only 1-4 three-pointers, scoring 9 in 28 minutes, and never quite clicking. It feels like he's in no-man's land right now, expected to score but also looking over his shoulder to make sure he's not breaking the offense as he does so. The only play that seems effortless is the catch-and-shoot three. The Warriors didn't give him many of those tonight.
Robin Lopez prospered when his team was prospering but ended up getting blistered by Bogut and getting pulled to provide more defensive mobility covering Warriors shooters (and maybe to add a bit more offense to the attack). Pulling him didn't help any more than playing him did. It was a lost cause with or without Robin. 2 points, 7 rebounds, and a very nice 3 assists in 21 minutes.
CJ McCollum got his, "You should have been playing me and better not ever sit me again" moment tonight, scoring 23 on 9-18 shooting in 29 minutes. He was one of the few Blazers who prospered in both halves. He feasted off ball movement in the first and looked totally comfortable taking matters in his own hands when the ball stalled in the second. Career night.
Joel Freeland played 23 minutes and did the same kind of yeoman's work we became accustomed to before he got injured. His defense was fairly spot-on. He hit the outlet shot when called upon. It was classic Freeland. Good to see him back.
Meyers Leonard snagged 5 rebounds in 15 minutes but this game was moving way too fast for him...not so much in terms of pace up and down but in terms of ball movement and reaction time. Plays came too quickly on both ends for him to get comfortable. He got 1 open shot and missed it. Not his night.
If CJ McCollum hadn't vacuumed up the game ball it might have gone to Steve Blake. Blake has been up and down since the Afflalo trade, but tonight he was pure gold. 5 assists start the tally, but Blake also hit 2-4 three-pointers, drew 4 foul shots and made them all, and scored 10 in 15 minutes. When he sees an opening he takes advantage of it and the Warriors gave him openings tonight.
Allen Crabbe played 23 minutes, shot 2-7, scored 6 with 2 assists and 2 steals. His all-around game looks as good as anybody's off the bench. If he could hit his shots, he could become sneaky-valuable if these injuries persist.
Technically the Blazers remain in 4th place in the conference even with the loss, but only because of their division lead. They're now a game behind the 5th-place Los Angeles Clippers in the standings, tied in the loss column. They're 2.5 games behind the 3rd-place Houston Rockets, 2 in the loss column. 6th-place San Antonio and 7th-place Dallas sit 1/2 game behind the Blazers, 1 and 2 in the loss column respectively. It looks like that division title will come in handy.
Portland's magic number to clinch the Northwest Division remains at 8. Any combination of 8 Portland victories and Oklahoma City Thunder losses gives the Blazers the crown.
The good news for the Blazers: the schedule gets a bit easier this week, even if it's just as tightly packed. They face the Utah Jazz on the road tomorrow, the Phoenix Suns on the road on Friday, and return home to host the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.
Golden State Of Mind will walk away from this game satisfied and ready for the next step.
Make sure to check out an excellent In-Arena Report from special correspondent Arthur Bradford.
Got questions or comments about the Blazers? Call our podcast voice mail at 234-738-3394. And don't forget to check out the latest version of the podcast right here! Among other things we discuss who would be a better second-round opponent for the Blazers, these Warriors or the Memphis Grizzlies. Give it a listen and weigh in yourself.