The Portland Trail Blazers traveled to Oakland tonight to face the Golden State Warriors in the direst of must-win situations: down 3-1 and needing a victory to force Game 6 at home. They didn't get it, but they settled for the consolation prize of a hard-fought defeat, acknowledged by all who saw it as the best effort imaginable. The mileage on that may vary. A 4-1 series loss is still a loss. But Blazers fans can be assured that their team gave the Warriors everything they could handle up until the final moments of the game and the series. Golden State's execution ended up outstripping the Blazers but their hearts never did.
The Warriors started out this game with a couple priorities: getting Klay Thompson into scoring mode and making sure the Blazers had to deal with plenty of screens as they did so. Both plans worked. Thompson ended up scoring a couple quick buckets on his way to an incredible night. (He would finish the game with 33 points on 13-17 shooting.) The Blazers had trouble getting around screens to get to him so they ended up switching to stem the flow. Remember this. It worked in the first period but would come back to haunt the Blazers later.
With Thompson's early burst subsiding and no Warriors stepping up to fill the gap, Portland's offense started to tell. Damian Lillard hit a couple of threes in the period as did Maurice Harkless, the latter kicking off a huge night for Portland's supporting cast. The Warriors made a late-quarter run to squeeze 27 points from their formerly-stalling offense but the Blazers topped them with 30 for a 3-point lead after one.
Portland's second unit continued their super-excellent streak in the second quarter. Their defense, bolstered by Allen Crabbe patrolling the perimeter, was superb. Shaun Livingston scored inside via superior height but otherwise the Warriors bench had trouble getting anything going. Meanwhile Crabbe and Al-Farouq Aminu poured in threes while CJ McCollum struck from mid-range. A rare bench-inspired 10-0 run set up the Blazers to withstand Thompson returning to life, cashing in a trio of three-pointers on his way to 13 points in the period. Lilllard countered with free throws and a couple more shots to bring his first-half scoring total to 19. When the dust cleared, Portland led 63-58. The 5-point edge wasn't a huge comfort but Portland being on track for 120 and Lillard for 40 were both hallmarks of victory over Golden State. There was hope.
Everybody in the universe (and probably a few people outside it) understood that the Warriors would be making a run in the third quarter. They did. The Blazers had done a pretty good job watching Steph Curry up to this point but he finally got loose for a couple of trademark threes. The more Portland shaded towards Curry, the easier Thompson's job became. He burned the Blazers for 16 points in the third. The Blazers struggled on the other end, congenitally inability to score inside leaving their offense in a precarious position. Nowhere was this more evident than in the person of Mason Plumlee, who spent most of the second half avoiding the ball or any kind of shot, getting stuffed when he did attempt one. Turnovers and bad decision-making crept into Portland's game, leaving Golden State's opportunism to run unchecked.
The Blazers would have been sunk at that point were it not for the return of The Platoon of Unexpected Heroes. Remember that older Spider Man movie where Tobey Maguire's web-slinger got unmasked on the subway by accident, only to hear the entire train full of ordinary people say, "We're all with you, Spider Man...we've got your back"? CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard played Unmasked Spidey in the third period tonight, hitting but 3 shots between them. But Crabbe showed up with a pair of three-pointers, Aminu with two more triples, and Harkless with one. Plus Brian Roberts hit a foul-line jumper, Crabbe a layup, and Plumlee a dunk on the break. We're with you indeed. The show of solidarity gave Portland 28 points in a period when Golden State reached escape velocity with 35. Instead of getting blown out, the Blazers found themselves down only 93-91 entering the fourth.
That fourth period ended up one for the ages. Golden State came hard; they were not messing around. But the Warriors were hampered by three handicaps:
1. Andrew Bogut had strained his hamstring in the third and was unavailable for action.
2. Draymond Green also got hurt and limped his way through the period.
3. Klay Thompson--the game's leading scorer--would not attempt a field goal in the quarter.
Knowing these things, the statement, "The Blazers did a marvelous job of making non-Curry players make shots" should elicit riotous joy. Who else did they have to be afraid of? Portland ended up giving up layups and a few open mid-range jumpers, but they were hit by players named Livingston and Speights and Barnes. As a result, every time the Warriors clawed ahead by 3-5 points the Blazers dragged them right back.
Portland's own offense was not going so well, however. Plumlee's difficult night left Ed Davis pulling heavy duty. This took away any offense in the middle of the floor save guards penetrating. Portland's guards did, but Golden State followed them. Dishes to the perimeter came aplenty. Unfortunately Al-Farouq Aminu's shot--a significant weapon earlier in the game--deserted him. Crabbe remained open and his confidence was high but incredibly his teammates never seemed to find him. It was as if Aminu missing a couple dispelled all thoughts of the drive and dish offense. In the place of passing came tough shots in traffic, forced flips to Davis, and offensive rebounding scrums. These generated free throws for Davis and plenty of missed attempts for Lillard.
In the midst of this chaos, CJ McCollum's jumper became the most reliable source of offense in the period. It was his turn to emerge. But even 15 points from CJ in the quarter only served to keep the Blazers close. "Close" against the World Champs was good, but ultimately wouldn't preserve the series. They had to win...and they just couldn't.
The narrative of the evening will center around Steph Curry's greatness as the game came to a close. It's justified; he scored 14 in the final frame. But the daggers through Portland's heart came not just because of Curry's shooting skill, but because of inadequate defensive coverage of same. Throughout the second half the Blazers made life tough for Curry by making sure he was defended by a guard. They didn't stop him entirely but they made sure he wasn't able to get free beyond the arc. He had to dish or pull up for a two-point jumper. On the plays that put the Blazers away, Crabbe and McCollum were nowhere to be found. Instead Curry was guarded by forwards: Aminu and Davis. Putting them on a string was ludicrously easy. It spelled doom for Portland.
A critical Curry three-pointer with 3:11 remaining came after Aminu waved off McCollum and took on Steph voluntarily. A simple screen left Davis switched onto him, which was a near-automatic score. Curry would hit another three to ice the game with 24 seconds remaining after McCollum and Aminu switched while defending a pick. They opened the door and the MVP strutted right through it.
If Portland's guards were more apt at getting around screens, if the Blazers weren't prone to making inexperienced--and ultimately incorrect--decisions with the game on the line (see also: overtime of Game 3) tonight's outcome might have been different. This is the difference between a team just starting out and a team with enough talent and experience to make clear decisions, enough confidence to persevere no matter what gets in their way. This may be called "The Closest 4-1 Series in Recent Memory" but it was a 4-1 series because Golden State executed every time it mattered while the Blazers could not. Defense against Curry was the epitome of that phenomenon.
A couple of attendant factors contributed to Portland's demise.
1. Ed Davis missed free throws late, which isn't really his fault. He's not a good shooter and he managed to hit 1 of 2 both times he was sent to the line (and 6-8 free throws overall). McCollum hitting 1 of 2 with 1:21 remaining, leaving his team down 2 instead of down 1, hurt more. He shot 83% from the line during the season, 85% during the playoffs. Small things matter. As proved true for almost all of the Blazers, the moment weighed more than individual skill or averages. Portland succumbed to the situation instead of controlling it.
2. Damian Lillard was breathing heavily when he checked out of the first period. He had slowed visibly by the fourth. This was the exact time he tried to put the offense on his back. He ended up shooting 1-6 in the period, a layup his only make. The shots were heavily guarded and didn't come close to falling.
Lillard did not fail the team as much as run out of steam. The supporting cast had been ultra-reliable throughout this game, but that's not their track record. Lillard Time exists for a reason. If Damian had been able to rely on more offense from his teammates during the season, if Golden State's defense couldn't suck in on him like a vacuum sealer without paying for it, if he was a little bit fresher...any of these things might have rendered the outcome of this game different. As it was, the end was semi-painful to watch even though the final score was tight. The Blazers probably left 6 points on the table in the fourth quarter and might have prevented another 3 from the Warriors. That would have tipped the scales. That's not how it happened.
The important analysis came in the final paragraphs of the game recap. Veterans execute; Champions persevere. The Blazers threw their hearts into this contest but didn't end up doing either as well as the Warriors did. That's why they lost this game by a narrow margin and the series by a wide one. The explanations aren't esoteric. They didn't have enough firepower or consistency and they made technical mistakes in two games that were otherwise deadlocked. You can get away with that against the Rockets. Great teams will slip through that opening right into the next round.
This isn't anything different than Clyde Drexler's Trail Blazers used to do to first- and second-round opponents who were otherwise talented, but not as hard-nosed or reliable. The Blazers need to fix some structural issues and need more time in the oven before a 4-1 loss can turn to 4-2, let alone a series victory over a team like the Warriors.
As has been true all season, we're forced to grade the Blazers less on absolutes and more on a curve, rated against expectations and other teams this young. On those terms they acquitted themselves well. They have amazing chemistry and play in an amazing system. Both showed tonight and throughout most of the series. All things considered, both the team and its fans can be proud of this showing. They did not come close to beating the champs but they looked great anyway.
Damian Lillard led his team with 28 points. Once again those were an artifact of free throws. He hit 12-12 from the stripe. Otherwise he shot 7-24, 2-8 from distance, with 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 5 turnovers. We did not see the best Damian Lillard tonight. Fatigue and a worn-down body no doubt played their roles. Both are common to the playoffs, though. Lillard and his team will need to learn to play their best when their bodies aren't at their best. They'll also need to learn what parts of the season they can cheat through and what parts are indispensable.
CJ McCollum had one of his best overall nights of the post-season. He shot 11-23, 3-5 from the arc, scoring 27. He also notched 5 assists, 3 offensive rebounds, and 8 overall rebounds while playing some of the best defense we've seen from him. His ability to chase Curry off of the arc, even marginally, helped keep the Blazers close.
Al-Farouq Aminu finished the series strong. He appeared to like the matchup against Golden State. He shot 3-5 from distance, 5-10 overall, and scored 16 with 9 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Finding a defensive matchup for him against Golden State was hard. He was wasted against Harrison Barnes but couldn't chase the guards. Neither could he manhandle Draymond Green.
Moe Harkless contributed to the three-point barrage by hitting 3 of his 6 triples, 5-11 overall, and scoring 13. (Noticing a theme here?) He had 2 steals and some of the same defensive issues as Aminu.
Mason Plumlee had a rough series and an even rougher night. The Warriors stuffed him in a picnic basket then ate him for lunch. He took only 5 attempts, hitting 2. He scored 5 points with 6 rebounds and 4 assists in 24 minutes. He didn't look like he wanted the ball. He was only really happy when he was passing it.
Allen Crabbe exited the season on a high note. His evening was superlative. He scored 20 points on 7-9 shooting, 5-7 beyond the arc, pilfered 2 steals, and played some of the nicest defense he's shown all year. If he could get around a screen, he'd have been perfect tonight. As it was, even his gargantuan effort couldn't pull his team through the eye of the needle.
Ed Davis played 23 minutes, hitting 6-8 free throws (can't fault him for the late misses with that percentage) and scoring 6 points with 7 rebounds and 3 blocks, one of which sent Green crawling back down the court with his chin on his chest. That alone was worth the price of admission.
Brian Roberts spelled Lillard in a frantic attempt to get him rest. His 8 minutes didn't hurt the team at all and he scored 5 points in the process.
Gerald Henderson was the only bench regular to sad trombone his way out of the series. He shot 0-3 tonight, taking tough isolation looks. (Remember, that's basically his job.) He scored 1 point in 16 minutes of play.
Links and Such
Golden State Of Mind will be proud of a team that notched yet another series victory.
This marks the end of the 2015-16 season. If you've been around Blazer's Edge more than half a minute, you'll know that this does not come anywhere close to marking the end of our coverage. We actually ramp up when everybody else is closing down. Over the next few days we'll reflect on the season past and the players who participated in it before diving into the Blazers' chances of getting into the draft and their prospects in this summer's all important free agency period. We're anticipating this as much as you are and you're not going to get deeper, more comprehensive coverage anywhere.
In the meantime, I'd like to offer thanks to the folks who have worked so hard through 90-odd games this season: our game night and video crews, all the recappers and mods, and our wonderful cadre of social media gurus. You'll see them around this summer too, but don't forget to thank them for their hard work night in and night out. They do it for you and for all of us. I can't imagine being in better hands.