Trailing the Golden State Warriors 2-0 in a best-of-seven series, the Portland Trail Blazers faced a must-win situation in Game 3 on Saturday evening at the Moda Center. Riding a wave of home-court momentum, the Blazers put on a display of poise, grit, and incredible three-point shooting to down the World Champions and narrow the series to 2-1 via a 120-108 victory. At the center of it all was Damian Lillard, who not only set a new career playoff high in scoring but single-handedly transformed his team from shaky hopefuls into triumphant victors. Lillard registered a post-season performance for the ages just when the Blazers needed it most.
The Blazers didn't make a definitive statement at the outset of this game...unless that statement was, "Yeah, you can hurt us, but we're going to stick around." Klay Thompson torched the nets in the first period, hitting 4 three-pointers like layups. The Blazers tried to draw Warriors center Andrew Bogut into perimeter screen defense but he still managed to clog the lane and chair his team's board committee. Confined to the mid-range early, the Blazers offered sporadic resistance. Damian Lillard would hit a trio of threes in the quarter. The Blazers forced turnovers and managed to get around Bogut and company for 6 offensive rebounds. But Portland's scoring remained sparse. Most of their damage was done against Golden State's second shift...better than nothing but not a promising outlook for the game as a whole. Portland trailed 28-22 after the first.
Blazers head coach Terry Stotts tweaked the rotation early in the second quarter, sending Lillard in at the 10:30 mark, earlier than his normal shift. The move paid dividends. Before that point, Portland's offense looked stuck. Lillard greased the wheels for a huge quarter, taking ball in hand and sending it through the basket ring time and again. Golden State's bench looked stunned, unable to do much more than turn over the ball. When the Warriors tried to shut down Lillard, he found Al-Farouq Aminu wide open. Aminu would miss but one shot all evening, that late in the game. As Aminu's shots fell, followed by scads of open teammates in turn, a formerly-impressive Warriors defense progressed from bending to breaking to just plain broken. Lillard had 28 points by the half; the Blazers scored 36 in the second quarter, and Portland carried a 58-46 lead into halftime.
Golden State shifted lineups in the third period, putting Draymond Green at center in place of a foul-plagued Bogut. (His teammates had been less than diligent in helping him protect his turf.) The move paid dividends offensively. Green hit 5 threes in the third period, continuing a night of crazy streaks from the arc on both sides. But Bogut's absence and Green's perimeter game took away Golden State's threat of rebounding dominance. Instead of a game of lane and glass control, it became a game of shooting. Green was impressive but Lillard and Aminu still weren't missing. Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson contributed as well, which didn't seem fair. When the smoke cleared, Portland owned a 35-34 edge in a furious offensive quarter and owned a 93-80 lead heading to the final period.
Having watched the Blazers blow a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of Game 2, Portland fans were on pins and needles as the stanza commenced. Lillard, Aminu, and CJ McCollum grabbed those pins and needles and stuck them right in the Warriors' eyes. Portland's top scorers would go 10-10 in the period with 3 three-pointers hit. Golden State played better defense and even made a mid-quarter 9-0 run. It didn't matter. Portland had the range. They released shots quickly and confidently. They just....didn't...miss. With every swish the Moda Center crowd got louder and Golden State's chances fainter. When McCollum hit a three to push Portland's lead to 14 with 1:22 remaining, even the Warriors mamas knew that they weren't coming back. The decibel level soared to the moon as Portland walked off with the 12-point win and hope for a more legitimate series.
This win begins and ends with two factors:
1. Damian Lillard was the swizzle stick that stirred everything tonight. 40 points on 14-27 shooting with 8-13 hit from range speaks for itself, but Lillard also made the rest of Portland's offense work. He dished 10 assists, grabbed 3 offensive boards, and drew so much attention that Golden State's defense started to resemble the Clippers' from last series. Whenever Lillard sat the Blazers gave off a "biding our time and hoping we don't get smashed" vibe. Fortunately Damian played 42 minutes...a huge contributing factor in Portland's win.
2. Everything looks good when three-pointers fall. And did they ever. The Blazers shot 17-30 from range, an incredible 57% mark. Of all the Blazers who attempted a three tonight, only CJ McCollum (1-5) failed to shoot 50%. Portland's three-point success turned Golden State's defense into a perpetual motion machine. Lillard scored, the defense contracted. Lillard flipped to Aminu for a three, the defense expanded. Lillard scored off the dribble again: contraction. Crabbe hit a three: expansion. Not only did the Warriors fail to stop the Blazers, their energy ground to a standstill in the fourth and they never mustered a serious threat to Portland's lead. And this on a night when they shot 48% from both the field and the arc. The Blazers didn't defend the Warriors as much as they wore them out.
Portland did other things well. They held Golden State to only 2 points on the break. The two teams finished dead even in offensive rebounds and Portland committed 2 fewer turnovers. Golden State held a 40-34 advantage in the lane but Portland forged a 29-17 edge in free throw attempts and scored 13 more points at the stripe.
Even with all that, had Portland shot a relatively impressive 43% from the three-point arc this game would have been tied. Their 57% clip from distance made everything else moot. Behold the Power of the Three.
Whether that's repeatable remains to be seen, but it was a heck of a way to break the ice on the series. With 51 points going up on the board from three-pointers alone, Portland's claim to the win was inarguable.
Damian Lillard scored a career-playoff-high 40 points with 10 assists and 5 rebounds in 42 minutes of play. Considering the context and how much of this win depended on him, it might have been the best performance of his entire career. It's impossible to overstate how hesitant the Blazers looked without him and how much they calmed when he took the floor and control of the game. Klay Thompson scored 35 on 50% shooting and Draymond Green 37 on 56.5% shooting tonight. Lillard's effort stood taller. His team won.
Al-Farouq Aminu also had his best game in a Portland uniform, scoring 23 on 8-9 shooting, 4-5 from distance with 10 rebounds and the usual defense. Lillard laid out the Warriors, Aminu broke their backs.
CJ McCollum struggled early but came out of the doldrums to ensure the Blazers stayed ahead in the fourth period despite Golden State's best efforts. 8-18, 22 points.
Huge games from Lillard, Aminu, and McCollum overshadowed rough nights for Portland's other two starters. Moe Harkless started the game shooting like he was Russell Westbrook, Part 2. He finished it 1-4 in just 7 minutes of play, though he did have 2 steals in that short span. Mason Plumlee played only 17 minutes, courtesy of 5 personal fouls. His biggest contribution was 3 offensive rebounds.
Erik Gunderson of the Columbian reports that injury may have played a factor in Harkless' performance.
Moe Harkless said that he has a bruised right hip that is limiting him. Stemming from the hard Draymond foul 1st quarter of Game 2.— Erik Gundersen (@blazerbanter) May 8, 2016
Ed Davis had his most Ed-Davis-y game of the playoffs tonight, ripping away 10 rebounds, blocking 2 shots, and scoring 8 points in 30 minutes. Extended minutes appeared to help him find a rhythm on both ends.
Allen Crabbe and Gerald Henderson both did their jobs, scoring 10 and 8 respectively. Each shot 2-8 in the process but as 3 of their 4 combined makes were three-pointers, it didn't matter.
Brian Roberts got a call late in the first, spelling Damian Lillard in preparation for Lillard taking the early second-quarter shift. Useful, that.
Links and Such
At long last, here's a Boxscore you won't have to burn after reading.
Golden State Of Mind will probably be sanguine about this result.
Game 4 commences at 7:30 p.m. on Monday night.