As Kevin Garnett once opined, anything is possible in the NBA. On any given night during the long regular season, a cellar dweller can knock off an elite opponent if the circumstances are right. The Portland Trail Blazers know this to be true - they have a Dec. 26 romp over the defending Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers on their résumé to prove it.
Unfortunately, tonight "anything is possible" gave way to the inevitable and expected.
As predicted, the Golden State Warriors Traveling Basketball Clinic trounced the Blazers by a final score of 128-108. The Warriors started hot, hitting eight threes in the opening frame, while the Blazers struggled in the early going, missing their first eight field goal attempts. The result: Golden State led 38-21 at the end of the first quarter. The Blazers never cut the margin to less than eight the rest of the way as the Warriors cruised to victory.
Damian Lillard led all scorers with 40. The Warriors starting backcourt, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, responded with a combined 62 points, and Draymond Green added a triple double.
Portland opened the first quarter by missing their first eight shots. They did not score their first basket until the 7:11 mark when Al-Farouq Aminu hit a jumper out of a busted play. Meanwhile, Golden State was scoring at will out of their trademark motion and ball movement heavy offense. Thompson repeatedly found himself open off of screens and made the Blazers pay by scoring 22 points on five 3-pointers in the first period. On the other side of the ball, aggressive play from Lillard led to some Portland baskets after the cold start. But the Warriors' defense keyed in on the rest of the Blazers. Lillard finished the quarter with 11 but none of his teammates had more than four. The result was a 38-21 deficit heading into the second.
The Blazers opened the second quarter with C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, and Moe Harkless. Despite Lillard being on the bench, Portland's second unit made some headway against the Golden State reserves. For the first time all night Portland out-executed the Warriors' defense with confident ball movement, leading to several open shots. On the other end, the defensive intensity picked up and fast hands from Allen Crabbe and McCollum led to five steals in the first two minutes of the quarter. A Crabbe steal and fast break dunk capped an 11-2 Portland run and cut the Warriors' lead to 40-32. Interim coach Luke Walton called timeout.
After the timeout, Draymond Green re-entered the game and the Warriors immediately returned to form. They scored 13 of the game's next 16 points to push the lead back to 18 midway through the second. Lillard would continue fighting, but at that point the game was functionally over. Portland never got closer than 14 points the rest of the way.
This victory was as "paint by the numbers" as you can get in the NBA. All of the boxes one would expect to be checked in a Warriors/Blazers tilt were checked. With Golden State coming off three days' rest, Harrison Barnes being re-integrated into the lineup, and Steph Curry wearing shin guards, the result was inevitable.
Offensively, the Warriors abused the Blazers defense all night long. Golden State scored 74 in the first half, 128 for the game, made 18 3-pointers, and shot 52.9 percent from the field. It is literally impossible for any team in the league to beat the Warriors when they are that hot.
As those stats make apparent, Portland's defense was not up to the task tonight. Specifically, the Blazers were not able to stay close enough to the Warriors' shooters curling off of screens. Thompson, especially, is capable of getting a shot off with even an inch of room. Opposing players have to almost literally be in his jersey to stop him. Unfortunately for the Blazers, McCollum, Crabbe, and Gerald Henderson were regularly picked off on screens, leading to 36 points and seven 3-pointers from Thompson.
Additionally, the Warriors used the versatility of Green and Curry to repeatedly force mismatches. Lillard was the primary victim, regularly getting caught on screens and having to switch onto Golden State's big men. (It happened so often that I began to wonder if coach Terry Stotts had actually written Lillard-onto-Green switches into his gameplan!)
The problem with those switches is that if the Warriors are playing smallball they can put Green into the post against the smaller guard and send all their shooters out deep. If the opponent sends a double, Green can easily find the open shooter, and if Green is left alone he scores over the guard.
Green feasted on these situations, finishing with 11 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. He now has a league-leading eight triple doubles, and three in the last four games.
The Warriors also exploited Portland's switching defense when they had a traditional center in the game. By cycling cutters into the lane off perimeter screens they forced the Blazers to constantly switch and adjust until the chaos resulted in an open man.
Beyond that, even when they did play solid defense, the Blazers were also just overmatched by the best player in the NBA on the best team in the NBA.
Curry finished with 26 points and 9 assists.
Brandon Rush also deserves credit for playing well. He has filled in at starting forward for the recovering Harrison Barnes and hit shots when the Blazers' defense keyed in on the bigger name Warriors players. Rush finished with 20 points.
Defensively the Warriors also outclassed the Blazers tonight. As alluded to above, the Warriors' gameplan was to let an ultra-aggressive Lillard get his points, but prevent his teammates from scoring. This was especially effective in the first period when, at one point, the Portland offense devolved almost exclusively to high pick-and-rolls with Lillard and Ed Davis. The Warriors know that one player will not be able to outscore them, and tonight was no exception.
Additionally, the Warriors' defense made the Blazers' offense uncomfortable all night long. They regularly cut off the Blazers' preferred options and closed on shooters quickly enough to prevent open shots. When Golden State had the larger players in the game they would not let the Blazers get uncontested looks around the rim, preferring to cede the mid-range jumper. For example, Mason Plumlee as he handled the ball on the perimeter to disrupt the backdoor passes the Blazers so often rely on.backed completely off
The result was tons of missed shots for the Blazers - they finished 14-34 on shots in the paint. Mike Barrett repeatedly mentioned that the Blazers were "just missing easy shots" but that sells short the excellent job the Warriors were doing of running the Blazers off the 3-point line and making them think every time they approached the basket.
In the end, most of this was a routine night for a rested Warriors team. They have the best 36-game record in NBA history for a reason and the Blazers do not yet have the talent or experience to handle them. The Warriors executed their gameplan to perfection, and the Blazers were unable to string together enough (any?) defensive stops to challenge once the Golden State shooters started rolling.
Damian Lillard scored 40 points on 27 shots tonight and added 10 assists. He looked great on offense, and was one of the only Portland players who stayed aggressive all night. For a player just returning from injury, this was an impressive scoring performance. Lillard also had only three turnovers, which was great given how often he had the ball in his hands. There's no way to sugarcoat the other half of it: Defensively Lillard looked bad. The Warriors intentionally targeted him all night and eventually he just seemed to give up on fighting through screens. He also had a couple "caught looking" errors which the Warriors will always find and exploit. Lillard did have a nice highlight dunk:
Allen Crabbe was the other aggressive Blazer tonight. He fell victim to multiple Thompson 3-pointers, but he also had two steals and remained active. He was especially effective on offense, scoring 18 points, despite missing all four of his 3-point attempts. He continues to add to his repertoire and is rounding into a legitimate offensive threat, rather than just a spot-up shooter. One play in particular was impressive: He caught the ball on the perimeter, drove to the hoop, froze the defense with a quick look to the weakside, and layed it in.
C.J. McCollum finished with 17 points, but was only 7-23 from the field, and 4-16 from inside the arc. Golden State's defense swamped him when he drove and took away a lot of his favorite offensive moves. McCollum's offense has not advanced to the point that he can effectively use counter moves around the rim and his scoring suffered as a result. Contrasting Lillard and McCollum tonight is a good illustration of how much McCollum can continue to learn by playing with Lillard. On the positive side, McCollum had only one turnover - his shot selection was suspect, but otherwise he wasn't making bad decisions.
Maurice Harkless got 22 minutes tonight to matchup with the Warriors' various smallball lineups. He was often tasked with following one of the Warriors' secondary scorers (e.g. Rush) and was a non-factor on offense. Harkless finished with five points, a rebound and two steals.
Noah Vonleh was torn apart by Green. The Lillard and Vonleh on Green and Curry combination was one of the worst defensive mismatches the Blazers have seen all season. Vonleh just is not ready to hang with All-NBA caliber players. It felt almost unfair to start him tonight.
Meyers Leonard scored only five points, but his presence had a noticeable positive impact on the Blazers' spacing, especially in the second half. His game is actually fairly well suited to this matchup, as he can draw Green or Bogut away from the basket with his shooting and has the passing ability to hit cutting Blazers. Leonard also did decently on defense against smaller and faster players. Leonard was the only Blazer with a positive plus/minus.
Al-Farouq Aminu had little impact. He did crash the boards for seven rebounds against the smaller Warriors.
Mason Plumlee did decently as a help defender and had a nifty reverse lay-up at one point, but the matchups were not suited to his style. He also airballed a free throw which drew some jeers from the vocal Warriors fans in the crowd.
Ed Davis tried to do his usual "garbage man" routine, but the Warriors were too fundamentally sound to allow much impact. He hustled and tipped a few missed shots, but this was not the right opponent for him. He still managed to haul in seven rebounds, but you would hope for more than two offensive rebounds on a night the Blazers missed 58 shots.
Gerald Henderson's agent will not be sending tonight's game tape to playoff contenders looking for a veteran guard. Like all the Blazers wings, he was burned on defense all night, but also looked out of place on offense. He finished with one point and three missed field goals,
Tim Frazier and Pat Connaughton played five minutes in garbage time. They probably should have been put in even sooner, given the circumstances.
Bill Walton was in the Moda Center tonight watching his son, Luke Walton, act as interim head coach for the Warriors. He declined an interview with Michael Holton but did mention that he still loves the Blazers.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr was also present, but watched from the locker room. He has suffered migraines after an offseason back surgery, but is expected to return to the bench soon.
The Blazers wore their red alternates at home again. Are color jersey at home going to become a regular thing in the NBA?
Links and Such
Golden State of Mind must be getting tired of winning by now, right?
The trail gets only marginally easier for the Blazers going forward. On Sunday 6:00 PM PST they face off against the other team with a more prolific scoring duo than Lillard and McCollum: The Oklahoma City Thunder.
We're planning on sending 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th and we need your help. You can donate tickets to the cause through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)