Word emerged that Jusuf Nurkić would not play about two hours before game 1 of the Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors playoff series. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum did everything they could to compensate for Nurkić’s absence, outscoring Steph Curry and Klay Thompson by 29 (75-44). Their sterling play kept the Blazers close for three quarters, but ultimately Lillard and McCollum did not get enough support from their teammates to prevail.
Thompson and Curry, on the other hand, watched as Kevin Durant scored 32 points, and Draymond Green pitched in 19 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists. Add in some stifling, trapping defense that led to a 13-2 run to open the fourth quarter and the Warriors prevailed, 121-109, to take a 1-0 lead over the Blazers in their playoff series.
The game opened with an extended feeling-out process, as if neither team wanted to show all their cards in the first hand. Attempts came from luminaries such as Zaza Pachulia, Noah Vonleh, and Evan Turner. As you might expect, those looks came from mid-range and inward. As you also might expect, it was a little ugly.
The difference-maker early was Durant, who set out to prove that Portland couldn’t field a forward tall or mobile enough to stop him inside the arc. Durant ended up with 7 in the period.
Then the wheels got greased and the game started moving outward into the province of the guards. Fortunately for Portland, Thompson shot like he was being smacked upside the head with a sea bass on every jumper. Unfortunately, Curry had no such problem, scoring 10 points in the period on a series of deep shots and drives. On the other end, Golden State played up on Portland’s guards so tight that they couldn’t dribble, let alone shoot. Inevitably they’d make a bail-out pass to one of the supporting cast. Inevitably that would result in a miss. As the clock wound along you could see the wheels turning in the heads of Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, and Vonleh. Hesitation from wide-open Trail Blazers allowed the Warriors to catch up to shots, making difficult looks impossible.
The Blazers didn’t sink, however. They were saved by their ability to force turnovers: 7 in the first quarter alone. Every time Golden State made a casual pass, the Blazers would nab it. Getting down the court before the defense set allowed McCollum to go crazy...no confidence problems there. McCollum ended up with a dozen points in the period, saving the bacon, ham, and all associated lunch meats of his team. Golden State led 31-27 after one.
(Associated Lunch Meats might also prove an apt nickname for Portland’s supporting cast in this series. Stay tuned.)
The second period began with Thompson finally heating up, on his way to 7 in the period. At which point McCollum looked at him and said, “You call that heating up? THIS is heating up.”
CJ then uncorked a blimp-sized blowtorch on Oracle Arena that melted the face off of every spectator within 1000 nautical miles. He went 7-9 in the quarter on his way to 27 first half points, tying a franchise record and causing Kendrick Lamar to say, “Damn! I guess I only did the second most impressive thing this weekend.”
Meanwhile the Blazers tried to return Golden State’s favor on defense, getting up in the guards’ grill like bratwurst on Labor Day. Despite a couple flubs, they generally made life tough for the Warriors. But a couple basic truths were starting to emerge:
- Golden State’s plays were crisp enough and the players running them tall enough that Portland remained at a disadvantage despite their effort.
- When Golden State forced a pass from Portland guards, the ball found Aminu and Harkless and once even Pat Connaughton. When Portland forced a pass from Golden State guards, the ball found Durant. This is the exact difference between your mom saying, “No dessert unless you eat all your veggies” and, “No dessert unless you eat all this bacon.”
Even with McCollum’s outburst the Blazers would have floundered had it not been for Damian Lillard exploiting one of the oldest maxims in basketball: if the defense is going to play up, drive past them. He keyed a late-quarter run with a series of floaters accompanied by a Curry-esque, near-Toyota-winning halfcourt three-pointer. Don’t look; the score was tied at 56 at the half.
Portland’s so-far-maligned supporting players had their moment in the sun as the second half commenced. Harkless hit a three pointer, Turner hit two, and Vonleh demonstrated nice passing and patience in the paint. Unfortunately Curry went on a scoring run in the face of an increasingly-passive defense on the other end. This is like finally fixing the leak in your house only to find that the foundation has slipped. Prior to this Portland’s good defensive stands had resulted in stops and their bad ones in easy shots. Now their good stands were turning into fouls and their bad stands into dunks. Golden State seemed like they would run away with it.
Except they didn’t. Part of that was because the Blazers remained committed to high-efficiency attempts. Almost every look came in the lane or beyond the arc. Also Golden State seemed oddly satisfied with their great play. They’d make an impressive block or a run-out dunk, then celebrate. “This is the part where Portland acknowledges our greatness and folds, right?” Except while they were looking proud of themselves, Portland calmly hit another shot or two.
After taking the brunt of Golden State’s big, block-and-dunk-filled rally, the Blazers were still within 3 when Lillard drew an offensive foul on Curry with seconds remaining in the quarter. Portland then lofted the ball to Connaughton who completed the period-long tour de force of the ancillary players with a three-point play. The score remained knotted at 88 after three.
In a perfect world, Portland would have surged ahead to prove their threat credible as the final period commenced. The opposite happened. Slow defense allowed the Warriors to open up an 11-point lead with just under 8:00 remaining. Golden State had no such defensive problems. They smothered everything the Blazers tried to get in the lane. Portland dribblers got stripped and blocked. And those were the good possessions, infinitely preferable to seeing offensive players who-shall-not-be-named barf up left-handed, backwards spin shots off of hopeless drives. Nor were the perimeter shooters helping, as their attempts came off-form and short.
The Blazers did rally mid-quarter. Lillard and McCollum drove deep in the lane, an improvement over previous offerings. But in the end the law of averages caught up with them. They still weren’t fielding anyone quick enough to contain Curry on high screen switches and they weren’t fielding anyone tall enough to stop Durant inside. The Warriors knew it and took advantage. All the plays went to or through those two luminaries. The fire that had roared through three periods sputtered out in the fourth as the Blazers managed only 21 points. It wasn’t near enough. Final Score: 121-109, Golden State wins Game 1.
The bottom line this afternoon is that Lillard and McCollum did everything they could to keep the Blazers competitive, but didn’t get enough help from their teammates. McLillard spent the first half hitting incredible shot after incredible shot, with Golden State defenders draped all over them. It was one of the most impressive offseason offensive explosions in team history, on par with Aldridge’s first two games against the Rockets in 2014 and Terry Porter’s exploits in the early-’90s.
McCollum, especially, stood out as a fully matured, multi-faceted offensive force. He scored in the mid-range, on drives, on 3-pointers, and even created some foul shots. This play where he sneakily burns Durant and then looks over his shoulder and times a deceleration to draw a foul at the rim was particularly masterful:
Lillard and McCollum were at their most effective when they freelanced - at one point Lillard tried to run a pick and roll with McCollum, but decided just to jack (and drain) a 30-foot shoot when their timing was off. The Warriors’ elite defense relies on disrupting passing lanes with length and switching aggressively to trap and contain movement. With Lillard and McCollum going ISO on multiple broken plays and draining jumpers over outstretched arms, the Warriors’ defensive advantages were more or less mitigated.
However, that all changed when the fourth quarter started. Outside of a brief flurry early in the third quarter, led by Noah Vonleh’s best Mason Plumlee impersonation, the supporting cast did nothing to actually support McLillard. Blazer’s Edge News Editor David MacKay pointed out on Twitter that the Blazers didn’t even get a basket from a player taller than 6-foor-7 until Maurice Harkless scored very late in the second quarter:
Harkless (6'9") on the board with 2:38 left in the second quarter. Whew lad. https://t.co/RRbVZ1taph— David MacKay (@DavidMacKayNBA) April 16, 2017
The problem with the lack of backup is that the Warriors eventually adjusted and exploited the Blazers’ isolation based offense. They guarded Lillard and McCollum tight all afternoon, but starting in the fourth quarter Warriors coach Steve Kerr had his defenders trap the Blazers’ guards even harder.
Pachulia jumped out on pick and rolls, and the Warriors’ length, combined with some hesitancy from McLillard, disrupted the vital first pass out of the double. Lillard and McCollum couldn’t even get a contested shot off under those circumstances. The cranked up defensive intensity sparked a 13-2 run to open the fourth quarter, and an 88-88 tie turned into a 101-90 advantage for Golden State in mere minutes.
Additionally, the Blazers lost the rebounding battle 45-38. With Golden State generally preferring smallball lineups in key moments it’s essential that opponents punish them on the glass to prevent extra possessions. The Blazers did the opposite.
Part of the reason the Blazers struggled to rebound is because they also preferred a smallball lineup for most of the game. With Nurkic out, and Meyers Leonard noticeably hampered by an ailing back, Terry Stotts put a traditional center on the court for only seven minutes.
The problem is that playing without a big man means the Blazers are essentially trying to beat the Warriors at their own game. Ultimately, that’s a fool’s errand for this Portland team. Lillard and McCollum did their part by outscoring Curry and Thompson handily, but the Warriors’ supporting cast is so much stronger there’s simply no way the Blazers can keep up in a fast paced, high scoring, and chaotic game.
Durant can score easily in single coverage against even the best of Portland’s defenders when Curry and Thompson give up the ball, but the Blazers can’t double Durant because the Warriors have scorers at all five positions. Similarly, Vonleh cannot matchup to Green’s point center abilities on offense, and no Blazer can match the highlight reel worthy defense-into-transition-offense plays that Green creates. With Nurkic in the game the Blazers could, theoretically, try to disrupt the Warriors’ style, but without him they simply become a 41-win knockoff of a 67-win team. Not surprisingly, the Warriors have now beaten the Blazers in 12 of the last 14 games between the two teams.
Outside of Lillard and McCollum’s explosion, the Blazers can take solace in the fact that their defensive gameplan tonight appeared solid. They were very aggressive matching up against Curry and Thompson and kept Golden State’s backcourt on its heels for long periods of time. McCollum even disrupted Thompson’s spot-up shooting coming out of screens - plays that he has struggled mightily to defend in the past. The Blazers also got into the passing lanes themselves, creating 10 turnovers in the first half.
They still had annoying lapses on basic reads on occasion - at one point McCollum went under a screen leaving Thompson wide open and then made no effort to stop an easy lay-up by Ian Clark in a 1-on-2 break - but overall the defensive intensity was a step above what Blazers fans saw for the bulk of this season.
Of course, that begs the question, if the Blazers got 75 points from Lillard and McCollum and played above average defense and STILL didn’t win, what can they do to compete in this series? The answer to that question will depend on the health of a 7-foot Bosnian center, and/or uncharacteristically exemplary performances from multiple role players.
What more can be said about Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum? They were amazing. A joy to watch. Seeing McCollum get around screens and actually challenge jump shots was a nice treat. Lillard’s defense was suspect, as usual.
Evan Turner was probably the third best Blazer. He didn’t force any shots, hit a couple open 3-pointers, and made some plays on defense. ET finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, and this defense-into-offense highlight:
Maurice Harkless was the only other Blazer in double figures, but it took him 13 shots to get to 11 points. He made an effort against Durant, but was overmatched, like any other defender on the planet. Portland will need more than 3 rebounds from him.
Noah Vonleh, getting the start at center, had a brief offensive flurry to open to open the third quarter. He dished out several assists from sets that used to be designed for Mason Plumlee, and also picked up a dunk. He had only 2 points though.
Harry Potter must have lent Allen Crabbe his dad’s cloak before tonight’s game.
Al-Farouq Aminu was worse than invisible, with several of his usual inexplicable drives into set defenders resulting in atrocious shots or turnovers. He can’t waste possessions against the Warriors.
Sigh, Meyers Leonard. Hopefully he can get healthy this summer.