If you're playing that drinking game where you take a shot every time a Portland Trail Blazers player gets injured, you might want to check yourself into a 12-step program about now. The big news of the night from the Blazers' 116-105 loss to the Golden State Warriors has nothing to do with the outcome. Shooting guard Arron Afflalo went down in the fourth quarter with what he described as a "tearing" or "stretching" sensation in his right arm. An MRI is pending. You can keep up with the latest updates in our injury post.
Afflalo's injury cast a pall over a pretty good effort from the Trail Blazers. They lost by 11 but the game remained close until the waning moments when Stephen Curry put on his Captain Amazing underoos and poured in 10 points in the final 2 minutes. If failure to stop Curry is a crime, the entire world would be in jail. The Blazers played far tougher for far longer than they had to, putting a large-sized dent in the best franchise in the league in the process. It just wasn't enough to earn the "W".
Whatever magic the Blazers carried into Oracle Arena, they kept quiet for the first few minutes of the game. As we've mentioned several times this season, opponents scoring at the arc or at the rim is a sure sign Portland's defense is falling apart. Their entire scheme is designed to prevent those two occurrences. Either one is bad news, but both together is a disaster.
The Warriors were doing both in the early-going. Every one of Golden State's first 19 points came within 4 feet of the rim or beyond the arc. The Blazers made good on the other end from mid-range, but that's not their preferred offense. Whatever advantage they had came inside, as Robin Lopez threw his weight around and grabbed rebounds.
But Portland squandered that advantage by losing Curry off of screens throughout the frame. Steph scored 14 in the period, leading his team to 30. Only deadeye shooting from 16-20 feet allowed Portland to hang close. The score read 30-27, Golden State after one but there was little doubt the Warriors would have their way with the Blazers unless something changed.
That "something" turned out to be Portland's second unit. With Lopez, Chris Kaman, and Meyers Leonard at the big spots, the Blazers turned away Golden State's inside attack. Taking away the rim allowed Portland's perimeter defenders to stay home versus shooters. The Warriors managed only 6 points in the first 7:30 of the second.
Spearheaded by CJ McCollum and a surprisingly adept Leonard, the Blazers put on a passing and scoring display to rival Golden State's best. They turned the Warriors' own offense against them, scoring at point blank range to set up three-pointers. Portland was already rolling with the true bench players, but when Damian Lillard checked back into the game the inside-outside attack went wild. The Golden State faithful sat stunned as the Blazers built a 49-36 lead.
And then Steph Curry started shooting again.
Back-to-back threes bracketing the 4:00 mark brought the Warriors' deficit back to single digits. Then Klay Thompson took over for a couple minutes, scoring 9 on a three-point shot and a couple and-ones. Before you could say, "Bob's your uncle (but he used to be your aunt)" Golden State had pulled even, then retaken the lead by 3.
Golden State led 57-54 at the half. Portland led in second-chance points by an 18-7 margin but the Warriors obliterated them in fastbreak points (17-2) while shooting 51% from the field and 44% from the arc.
The second half started as the first had, with the Warriors going on an almighty tear consisting of nothing but inside shots and threes. The Blazers faced a 69-58 deficit before 4 minutes had elapsed. It was as if the Warriors were saying, "Here's who we really are!"
Portland refused to fold, though. Instead they came back with, "Well here's who WE really are!" This "we" consisted of Aldridge at center with shooters all around: Lillard, McCollum, Afflalo, Nicolas Batum, and eventually Steve Blake and Allen Crabbe. The scheme worked. Golden State couldn't handle LaMarcus at the 5. He scored a dozen in the period. Meanwhile Portland's hot shooters shot hot. The result was a 30-27 inversion of the first quarter score with the Blazers on the high end this time. The game was knotted at 84 as the fourth period commenced.
Both teams started slowly in the final frame, second units battling each other to a near-standstill. But you knew the game wasn't going to end up like that. The first half of the fourth period was the calm, the last 6:00 the storm.
As the game wound toward its close, each team mirrored the other: jab-haymaker, jab-haymaker, layup-triple, layup-triple-triple. If dodging back and forth on the scoreboard wasn't so nerve-wracking, it would have almost seemed like playground teams balling for the joy of it.
Though neither side got a clear edge, the tiniest of cracks showed in Portland's armor. Their small-ball lineup scored effectively but they couldn't establish the rebounding presence that the bigger lineup had in the first half. Golden State got extra opportunities when the Blazers were barely withstanding their first shots. The Blazers also had a hard time matching up with Thompson. He only scored 5 in the period but his ability to shoot over, leap over, or post up on smaller 2-guards remained a constant threat against an undersized quintet.
Thompson hit a three to give Golden State a 95-93 lead with 5:37 remaining. That would be almost the last non-Curry points the Warriors would score. And they finished with 116. That ought to tell you something about the presumptive League M.V.P.
Curry basically made a parabola out of shooting distance in the final 330 seconds of the match, starting with a three, moving to mid-range, scoring at the hoop, then inverting his way back out, adding a few free throws in the process. From every range, on every shot, he remained unstoppable. 17 points in the last 5:16, 10 points in the last 2:02...however you want to describe it, the Blazers had no way to keep up. They tried. McCollum, Aldridge, and Lillard all scored at the rim. But each time Damian missed a three, each time the Blazers turned over the ball, you knew they were losing points they were never getting back. Curry was scoring too quickly, too incessantly, to brook anything but perfection.
Thanks to #30 in white, Golden State's 104-103 margin with 2:20 left turned into the final 116-105 score as the Blazers stood by shocked and helpless...left to applaud and marvel along with everybody else.
Both teams tonight were good. Both played inspired stretches and some less-inspired. Two characteristics distinguished them:
1. Steph Curry. Duh. But even he might not have been enough, except...
2. You saw the difference between a team that has to make compromises to reach its highest level of play and one that, at least right now, has to make none. The Blazers prospered inside with their big lineup but couldn't cover perimeter screens, leaving Golden State shooters wide open. Nor could they rotate out to shooters after penetration. So they went small and upped the octane on offense but they lost their rebounding edge and their ability to body Golden State's wings. They had to choose their advantage. Though the Blazers benefited, the Warriors exploited the weaknesses of either approach.
The Blazers are a playoff-worthy team and, under certain circumstances, a scary team. But this is exactly why the Blazers aren't destined for post-season greatness this year...not without a full lineup. They can't play to their strengths without exposing their backsides in the process.
Golden State deserves commendation for being able to read and exploit Portland's faults in a regular-season matchup. Not many teams manage that, or at least not as well. But as we're fond of saying, a playoff opponent has 2 straight weeks to think of nothing but. If the Blazers don't get bushwhacked in the first round, they're going to in the second...likely by these same Warriors. The troubles we saw tonight--screen defense, transition defense, experience, continuity--don't get fixed in-season, or at least not at this point in the season. They're going to become off-season issues this summer and next.
With Wesley Matthews in tow, the Blazers are closer to the Warriors' current level than most would think. But the step between one level and the next is among the hardest to make in sports. We saw how definite that gap is tonight...one team in serious championship contention playing against a good team hoping to get there someday. Here's hoping that health and a crafty move or two will allow the Blazers to land on the other side of that gap before the LaMarcus Aldridge Era fades away.
Aldridge scored 27 on 11-24 shooting but dominated the game only from the offensive end. 6 rebounds are well below his norm.
Nicolas Batum had 10 rebounds and 8 assists but couldn't stem the tide on the other end either.
Robin Lopez prospered when he was in, hitting 4-7 shot for 10 points and 3 offensive rebounds (7 total) in 23 minutes. But he wasn't mobile enough on defense and couldn't generate enough offense to play his usual tour. The Blazers needed more than he could give.
Damian Lillard shot a questionable 9-22, a horrific 1-9 from distance, to get his 20. 8 assists and 6 rebounds ease the sting a bit. Lillard has trouble getting around screens under normal circumstances. Asking him to keep close enough around picks to keep Curry bottled up is insane.
Arron Afflalo shot 4-6 before he went down but he was on his way to another 12-point, not-much-else evening.
CJ McCollum didn't care who he was playing. He shot 8-14, scored 17, and added 2 steals. We're seeing the CJ everybody hoped for. The big question will be whether McCollum will replace Afflalo if the latter can't play. There are a couple solid arguments for keeping CJ where he is and promoting somebody else: Allen Crabbe, Alonzo Gee. Defense is one, continuity another, CJ's own comfort a third.
Meyers Leonard had a fantastic 8 minutes with 2-2 shots hit, 6 rebounds, an assist, and 4 points.
Allen Crabbe also hit both his shots.
Chris Kaman was not as fantastic, perhaps part of the decision to go with the small-ball lineup.
Steve Blake gave plenty of effort on defense, maybe the only guard who stood up for himself on that end tonight.
The Blazers return to the Moda Center on Saturday night for their final home game of the season, facing the Utah Jazz.
The loss dropped the Blazers 2 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs in the loss column, 3 behind the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets. Though their division crown gives them tiebreaker priority against most of those teams, their chances for catching anyone ahead of them are all but gone, their chances of claiming homecourt advantage in the first round fading fast. It looks like Portland will remain in the 4th seed, traveling on the road to meet their first playoff opponent.
Golden State Of Mind will be singing a happier tune.
Call in to our Podcast Voice Mail Line if you have questions or comments about the Blazers you'd like us to address. The number is 234-738-3394. We'll also be getting back to the regular Mailbag column. The end of the season rush has made non-recap posts more rare, but that'll clear up soon. You can always leave questions at email@example.com