Despite a 121-109 loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of their Western Conference playoff series, the Portland Trail Blazers have plenty to feel good about regarding their performance. Obviously, the big story for the Blazers was Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum exploding for a combined 75 points. The highest scoring backcourt in the league, Portland’s duo generated points from all over the court—often going right at Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.
The Blazers also played a solid defensive game. Though it sounds strange to credit a team’s defensive effort after giving up 121 points, this game saw a solid team effort, including possibly McCollum’s best defensive game as a pro.
The Blazers—without center Jusuf Nurkic and heavily mismatched at times—hung in for the first three quarters of this game, giving fans hope they can at least make this series somewhat competitive. Despite this moral victory, Portland has several adjustments that they need to make for Game 2.
Since Nurkic’s status is up in the air, there’s no real reason to comment on how to integrate him until we know he’ll be playing. Obviously, though the Warriors would still be the clear favorites with Nurkic active, he at least forces Golden State to game plan differently. But since we don’t know if or when he’ll be active, we’ll have to stick a pin in that.
Initiate the Physicality
As Lillard said in his post-game comments, the team that initiates physicality not only gets the benefit of the whistles, but is also more easily able to establish and maintain momentum. In the fourth quarter last night, the Warriors turned up the physical aspect of their defense and broke open a tight game.
The Blazers need to find a way to mix it up a little bit themselves. This isn’t going to be the easiest task for them; they’re playing incredibly undersized and, as we all know, their most physical player may not even be available in this series at all. But Portland needs to let Golden State know that they’re here to play playoff-style basketball. Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner, and even Noah Vonleh have to be prepared to mix it up on defense.
This means bodying up on Kevin Durant before he catches the ball, working to get Draymond Green in potential foul trouble or possibly baiting him into doing something dumb, and not being afraid to foul hard in the lane. Not to say that they should be taking cheap shots at every player who drives down the line but, in the playoffs, if you’re going to foul a guy it needs to be hard enough that you know he’s not going to finish. He may even think twice about driving the lane again.
Teams that force the issue with their physicality often get the benefit of the doubt in the playoffs. Though Portland isn’t the most physical team by a long shot and could end up in foul trouble, this is a risk worth taking against such a talented Warriors team.
Find points from someone besides Lillard/McCollum
Portland’s backcourt explosion was a joy to watch, but didn’t come without its downside. The rest of the team combined for 35 points on less than 31 percent shooting, and Evan Turner had more than a third of that total by himself. That’s not going to get it done against a Warriors team that put up 116 points per game during the regular season.
Harkless and Vonleh both had opportunities near the rim where they didn’t go up strong; Aminu was a disaster, Allen Crabbe disappeared. Credit is due to the Warriors’ defense, but a lot of this pain was self-inflicted. Crabbe could only get one field goal in 22 minutes? Aminu needed to dribble into the teeth of the defense? Coach Terry Stotts needs to get creative in figuring out how to get his supporting cast good looks and, just as importantly, they are going to have to be willing to take them. Without naming names, a couple of Blazers looked like they were playing nervous with the ball in their hands.
Hopefully a few tweaks within the Blazers’ sets and a couple days to let the butterflies settle down will lead to a different result. Even though the playoffs are a different animal and we’ve seen some amazing performances over the years, Portland probably can’t count on 75 a night from Lillard and McCollum. Even if they up their game over the regular season and average a combined 60 a night in this series, that leaves 55 to 60 points that need to come from somewhere else. I’m curious to see who steps up here.
And not just because he might kick you in a very uncomfortable place. Draymond Green is the heart and soul of the Warriors, and a strong candidate to usurp Kawhi Leonard as the Defensive Player of the Year. Green excels as a help defender, especially, so it will be critical for the Blazers to account for him at all times. Multiple times in Game 1, in seemed as though Green caught the Blazers by surprise when he rolled in the the paint for a block, deflection, or shot-altering verticality.
or Leonard hitting from the outside would help. It won’t keep him out of the paint, but if Green has to think twice about leaving one of those guys on the perimeter, that half-step makes all the difference in the world. Just like teams playing defense need to be aware of where Curry is at all times, Portland needs to be aware of Green playing free safety and be prepared to make the extra pass out of the lane when penetrating.
In all, the Blazers played as well as can be hoped for 38-40 minutes yesterday. The Warriors are a truly special team and it takes near-perfect execution to beat them. Portland hung in and gave fans an entertaining game. If they hope to steal one in Oracle, they’ll need to maintain the things they did well and successfully make the adjustments listed above. While it’s easier said than done, I’m excited to see how the team responds on Wednesday.