Sunday evening’s final regular season meeting between the Portland Trail Blazers (21-28) and Golden State Warriors (41-7) had all the makings of a great heavyweight contest. The Blazers were riding high on a season’s best three-game winning streak and the Warriors were coming off a 46-point throttling of the Los Angeles Clippers last night.
As the adage goes “styles make fights.” Even with reigning MVP Stephen Curry sidelined by the flu, the attacking one-two combos of Portland’s Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum squaring off against the Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson led to an aggressive punch-counterpunch tussle that came down to the final round, errr seconds.
The home team went for the overhand right at the buzzer with an uncontested Evan Turner three pointer that caught front rim and bounced off, letting the Warriors off the ropes with a 113-111 TKO.
The game may have come down to the final seconds, but those who only watched the first quarter and tuned out the rest of the evening would never believe how close the Blazers came to pulling off the upset.
Portland came out weak on defense, letting Kevin Durant take uncontested shots, while also turning over the ball on offense. That gameplan went over as well as someone claiming Voodoo Donuts are the best donuts in Portland. Thankfully, McCollum came to the Blazers rescue early on and kept Portland within striking distance with 10 first quarter points. The Blazers trailed 33-24 at the end of the first.
Despite McCollum’s smooth play, the Warriors’ lead ballooned and the Blazers soon found themselves down 20(!) points in the 2nd quarter. Yet the Blazers did not give up - an inspired 20-2 run in the final five minutes of the half closed the gap.
None of those points were as pretty as McCollum breaking off not one, not two, but three Warriors’ defenders on the way to the cup. McCollum even hit all-NBA defender Draymond Green with a hesitation crossover that leaves Green lunging at nothing but air as CJ glides to the rim and finishes. It’s one thing to be a consistent 20+ point per game scorer in the league, like McCollum, but it’s another thing to make averaging 20+ points look so easy, and SO GOOD.
Also, did I mention a 20-2 Blazers run? At the break Blazers were down only 3, 53-50.
Blazers fans likely thought they were in a basketball remake of Inception during the third quarter as Andre Iguodala, not Thompson or Durant, started knocking down pull-up three-pointers in transition - a sure sign that the game was being played in dreamland. The Warriors headed into the fourth quarter with an 84-74 lead.
The final period showcased how the Blazers have thrived over the previous thee games: More control and tighter execution on the offensive end, consistency and aggression on the defensive end. Again it was McCollum driving the Blazers on offense with a barrage of three pointers (3 in the first 3 minutes). With 5:52 remaining a Lillard driving layup closed the gap to one, 96-95 and the Moda Center was alive.
A bevy of terrible shots from the Blazers on offense and inspired stops on defense kept the scoring to a minimum over the next couple minutes. The Blazers wouldn’t score until over three minutes later when a Mason Plumlee tip made it 99-97 Warriors. Seven points over the next 1:30 from Durant and Thompson extended the Warriors’ lead to 106-99 and seemed to put the game out of reach.
But, in an inspired twist of fate, Portland and the basketball gods intervened and a miracle comeback looked to be in the works:
- A foul on a Lillard three-pointer got Portland three with the clock stopped, to make the score 106-102 with 31 seconds left.
- Durant worked his way to the line but was matched quickly by a Lillard layup, 108-104 with 27 seconds left.
- Next, it was Thompson’s turn on the line, but he missed the front end and only picked up a point. McCollum saw his chance to shine and hit the stepback three and the score was 109-107 with 17 seconds left.
- Thompson was fouled again and again, making all four of his free throw attempts but he was matched by Evan Turner back to back finishes at the rim. The score: 113-111. Five seconds to go.
- As the Warriors looked to inbound, Durant streaked from right to left across the paint, running into and over Turner. Dead ball turnover. Blazers ball.
- With five seconds remaining the ball came in and was swung to the corner for a waiting Turner, he bodied Durant, stepped back squared up and launched. Clang. The ball bounced in, around, and off the rim as the horn sounded. Blazers fall, 113-111.
Let’s start with the play that will be on everyone’s mind: I have zero issue with Turner calling his own number at the end. He was playing spectacularly, even hitting threes tonight, and he had earned the right to take the shot. It just didn’t fall.
In general, Turner’s performance this evening is becoming more of the norm than the subpar play that typified his early season play. Moving Turner into the starting lineup has made his presence and skill sets come to the fore on both ends of the court. Defensively he has picked up the opposing team’s strongest wing scorer and he’s done admirably on the perimeter while still helping inside. That’s no small feat.
On the brightest of notes, McCollum has been down right amazing in 2017. He’s averaging a shade under 27 points while shooting nearly 50/40/90 and taking 20 shots a night. Those are staggering numbers. Tonight he shot 63 percent from the field and nearly 72 percent from distance, he’s taking his already elevated game to even loftier heights and making a case for being THE featured element of Portland’s offense.
From a team perspective, tonight continued that trend of positive growth, but some of the old, tired habits reared their ugly heads early. Most notably, throw out the first quarter performance and you might be looking at a Blazers victory here. They were slow in transition, didn’t close out on shooters, indecisiveness in the pick and roll, etc. The good news is that those sins were corrected quickly, the bad news is that team’s can’t afford even one poor quarter against the Warriors.
The narrative on the season is still yet to be written, but there are more than hints of significant improvement starting to bubble up. The lineup changes seem to have inspired the team on both ends, while individual play hasn’t changed drastically, the overall feel of the team is heading in a positive direction.
Al-Farouq Aminu will catch more guff than he should for his performance tonight. He did struggle mightily from the field, 3-for-10 overall, but his defense was a work of art. Not one of those paintings that you have to be at the right angle to appreciate but just good, old fashioned, masterful work. He added 4 assists, 9 rebounds, and 2 steals and caused at least 5 turnovers with his help defense and presence.
Damian Lillard rebounded from Lillard-Time against the Memphis Grizzlies with an understated but solid line: 19 points and 8 assists on 14 total shots. It’s a bit strange that a line like that from Lillard can seem like an off night, but it did and it does.
Evan Turner and Mason Plumlee seem to be building a solid rapport in the starting unit. The addition of Turner to the starters makes for additional playmaking that must be accounted for defensively. In fact, his two way play is allowing Portland to dictate to opponents on both ends of the floor for the first time all season. Plumlee is getting to the rim more aggressively, opting for dunks instead of layups. This is in part due to Turner facilitating from the high post, allowing Plumlee to catch the ball 1-2 steps deeper in the paint. Tonight they combined for 33 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists. While not the most logical pairing in the world, there may be something here worth examining in the future.
Links and Such
GoldenStateofMind covers the view from the Bay
The Trail Blazers welcome the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.
Help Us With Blazer’s Edge Kids Night 2017!
Help us send 2,000+ underprivileged Portland-area kids to a Trail Blazers game this spring! At this point we’re still a few hundred tickets short. If we don’t band together and donate those tickets, the kids don’t get to go. Here’s how you can help.