The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night down 0-2, needing a win to keep their rapidly-dissipating 2017 playoff hopes alive. Plenty of factors skewed in their favor. They played in front of their home crowd for the first time in the series. Injured center Jusuf Nurkic made his debut, bringing much-needed bulk to the lineup. The Warriors still lacked Kevin Durant, nursing an injured calf, and Head Coach Steve Kerr missed the game because of health issues as well. If any game was set up for a Portland win, this one was.
For a while, it looked like they would get it. The Blazers stormed out to an early lead then lengthened it, riding incredible performances by guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. On the other side, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson went ice cold. The Moda Center crowd rocked as the Blazers manufactured a 17-point margin.
But Golden State had been here before. Like an expert matador they let the bull expend its energy then vanquished it as it stood there panting. The emotion belonged to the Blazers but the victory went the other way...a bitter end to an otherwise joyous evening in Portland.
As expected with the return of Nurkic, the Blazers started the game on a high-energy roll. Though Nurkic was moving like a wax statue of a pregnant walrus, his bulk and passing skill still allowed Portland to play inside-out...a characteristic lacking from their offense so far in the series. An early assist, a field goal, and some sweet stroking by CJ McCollum buoyed to an 11-3 early run.
Portland’s first quarter fortunes were helped by Curry, who missed wide open jumpers in most uncharacteristic fashion. With their main gun firing blanks, the Warriors began to hesitate rather than attack on offense. Smelling blood in the water, Damian Lillard unhinged his jaws. He started bombing the same shots that Curry was missing, then scored off the drive. Lillard would finish with 15 points in the period. Add in a couple dunks from Noah Vonleh and a huge offensive rebounding advantage and the game had the makings of a blowout. The only things that kept the score remotely close were 7 Portland turnovers and the fact that Nurkic had to hit the bench, partially because of post-injury conditioning and partially because the Warriors started forcing him to defend high screens he just couldn’t catch up to. The scoreboard read 37-30, Portland after one.
The second quarter started with another strong run from the Blazers, this time 12-3. Points from Al-Farouq Aminu and Allen Crabbe announced that Portland would be firing on ALL cylinders tonight, not just the obvious ones. Lillard and McCollum kept up their barrage too, McCollum penetrating to the rim while Lillard continued to torture the Warriors from deep. Golden State had little answer. Their offense was one pass, then a series of dribble moves to a contested shot. When they did pass twice, they found the recipients shockingly wide open on the perimeter. For a second quarter in a row, those shots missed. It was like hearing Bugs Bunny say, “What’s up...” and then forgetting the rest of his line.
Is this really happening? Seriously?
Yes, it was.
The Warriors compensated for bad outside shooting by shoving the ball towards the rim, but Portland employed the same tactic that the Warriors did in Game 2 when the Blazers couldn’t hit from outside. They sagged back and bothered every shot in the paint. Golden State’s contested shots didn’t look any better than their uncontested jumpers. Packing people in the lane also gave the Blazers rebounding power even when they went with the small lineup. Bonus!
The Blazers pushed the lead as high as 17 before Curry hit a three to pull it slightly closer. Portland led 67-54 at the half. At this point the Blazers were 8-13 from distance, 53% from the field overall, and had a huge rebounding advantage. Lillard had 22, McCollum 17. Everything was going Portland’s way. But last year’s playoffs taught us that Golden State could turn double-digit deficits around without blinking. A 13-point lead was encouraging, but not yet secure.
The Warriors weren’t going to let the Blazers get off to a fantastic run to start the third. Thompson demonstrated their resolve by hitting a three on the first possession of the new half. But the Blazers told him exactly where he could put that as Evan Turner hit a three followed by McCollum rattling off 10 straight Portland points. Golden State looked confused. They ran a small lineup to match up with Portland’s interchangeable guards and wings, then ended up not able to guard any of them.
Damian and CJ continued to educate the Warriors on the finer points of getting squashed right up until the 6:00 mark. That’s when JaVale McGee checked in. He volunteered to play the role of “Warrior who didn’t forget how to play”, getting to the rim for dunks and shoring up Golden State’s chronic rebounding problems on the other end. McGee also proved effective helping on the perimeter, forcing the Blazers into turnovers. Even when every other method of scoring had failed them, the Warriors weren’t going to miss layups. They ran and dunked with abandon. Then their guards regained courage, burying shot after shot. The Moda Center floor became a parade route. The Warriors headed to the rim on decorative floats, pausing to splash the occasional three while the Blazers clapped and went, “Would you look at that?!?” It culminated in a 19-1 run and all of a sudden Golden State was tied, then ahead. An Aminu three resurrected Portland’s edge before the quarter closed but it was threadbare: 88-87, Blazers after three.
The second units of both teams dominated the floor as the fourth quarter commenced. Like your very first car, they scrapped and broke down in equal measure. It wasn’t pretty, but the Blazers showed the Warriors that they weren’t backing down: an important affirmation considering how the third quarter ended. The score remained steady early.
Grit and bravado only carry you so far, though. At some point Golden State’s starters were going to come back in and the Blazers would have to deal with them. Thompson entered with 8:22 remaining, Curry and Draymond Green at 7:31. To their credit, the Blazers held the fort. Curry hit a three almost immediately but after that, the Warriors flattened out for a while. Unfortunately the Blazers couldn’t take advantage. Golden State’s defense was a heat-seeking missile aimed squarely at Lillard. After a triumphant first half, Portland’s lead guard ended up shooting 2-10 in the final two quarters.
Absent their chief scorer, the Blazers had to improvise. Sometimes that went well. Vonleh continued to score unopposed at the rim. Often it went poorly. The Blazers spent several minutes pounding divots into the court with their dribbles only to attempt 1-on-2 shots or pass to Aminu at the arc, neither of which were sound strategy.
The Warriors made a small, but decisive, break at the 6:30 mark when Ian Clark got around his defender and made a baseline drive right into the waiting arms of Nurkic. Normal-strength Nurk would have erased his shot or at least moved a huge body in his path, allowing another defender to catch up. Hobbled Nurkic barely moved, twisting feebly to offer a foul which Clark converted into an and-one. Clark would miss the free throw and the score would remain 100-96, Golden State, but that was the end for Nurkic. He didn’t have the stamina or mobility to play through crunch time. Portland would miss him at the rim and on the boards.
As the clock wound down the Warriors started scissoring Portland’s defense in and out, passing and cutting with blinding speed. The Blazers were good for a cut or two—keeping up better than they would have with Nurkic in—but inevitably the ball would find an open shooter. Even at this stage several of Golden State’s shots missed, but they were zeroing in. Portland had to respect every pass and potential shot then scramble for every rebound in these critical possessions. They were almost up to the task, but not quite.
Portland’s night broke apart with less than a minute left and the Blazers down 4. Andre Iguodala missed a three, but Clark rebounded it, allowing his team to reset. After milking the clock, the Warriors found Curry single-covered beyond the arc. His shot splashed through to give Golden State a 7 point lead with 49 seconds remaining. It was a common enough shot for Curry but everyone in the arena understood it meant doom. Lillard hit three free throws on the ensuing possession but Curry emphasized his point with another field goal. At that point it was all over except the obligatory possession free throws. Once leading by 17, Portland fell by 6, 119-113. The loss was easier to understand than to explain, but it’s a pain Blazers fans know well.
Because Golden State’s offense is so good and their star power unrivaled, people tend to sleep on their defense. It won them the game tonight. At halftime the Blazers had 67 points, their starting guards had combined for 39, and they were shooting 53% as a team. In the second half those numbers dropped to 46 points, 24 points from the guards, and they ended up shooting 43% for the game. Portland’s sublime 8-13 performance from the arc in the first half gave way to a 5-19 nightmare in the second.
Portland managed to find an open man now and again because the Warriors let them, choosing to overplay the main scorers in those closing quarters. Outside of those easy scoring opportunities, the Blazers had nothing.
If you want to understand how Portland lost after shooting so well and building up a huge lead, look no further than two stats: 16 Blazers turnovers, 22 fast break points for the Warriors. As the game progressed Portland’s shots got harder because of Golden State’s defense. Golden State’s shots got easier...also because of Golden State’s defense. Those run-outs broke Portland’s back.
The Nurkic conundrum became one of the main storylines of the game. Portland’s returning big man had 11 rebounds and 4 assists, but also 3 turnovers. This was not prime-level Nurk. He was slow, barely moving. Size made him effective anyway, but the Warriors had sussed out the secret: when called to move, he just couldn’t. They forced him to defend screens and cross the lane. They penetrated knowing that they could either spin around him or evade his coverage with a single pass if he overcommitted. At that point the Blazers were facing a slow, steady demise if they left him in. The Warriors could strike from too many places on the floor to make it practical.
The problem was, all that ended up happening anyway as more agile Portland defenders ended up out of position chasing those same Golden State threats. Though the Warriors missed many open shots, the Blazers struggled to rebound down the stretch. Ironically that’s an ill that Nurkic might have cured.
Whether Nurk was sitting or playing, the Blazers probably would have lost this game. He would have helped them on the glass while hurting their ability to cover the floor and get back in transition. His return became an extension of the issue the Blazers have faced all series long: they can do all the right things, just not all at once. Whichever ones they end up not doing in a given moment, that’s how the Warriors beat them. It happened again tonight, just in a different way.
Damian Lillard shot 10-23, 4-13 from distance, for 31 points plus 7 assists. It was A Tale of Two Defenses against him. In the first half the Warriors took a casual attitude towards screens and almost dared him to shoot deep. He did and he buried them. In the second half they acted like nobody else in the world existed besides Damian. It was like pinning a butterfly to cork board. Lillard’s point guard skills started to founder and his scoring dried up. It was tough to watch, but if Damian had more help it would have been easier to counter.
CJ McCollum scored 34 on 10-23 shooting, hitting an impressive 6-9 from the arc. Unfortunately his mid-range shots weren’t falling tonight. If the Warriors scared him off the three-pointer, he ended up having to drive straight into the teeth of the defense. He was only 3-8 on shots near the restricted area. His defense on Klay Thompson remained strong.
Evan Turner scored 17, taking advantage of his ability to post up smaller guards. He added 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks. This has been a good series for him.
Noah Vonleh scored 10 close to the rim with 4 offensive rebounds and 3 assists. He had some nice defensive moments out high. If his court awareness were three years more advanced... (sigh)
Al-Farouq Aminu sprinkled nice drives among horrible shots, ending up a respectable 6-13 from the field for 14 points plus 9 rebounds.
That Jusuf Nurkic got 11 rebounds in 17 minutes while impersonating the Statue of Liberty is pretty impressive.
Allen Crabbe played 23 minutes but never looked that comfortable on the court, despite hitting 2 of 3 shots. It’s just not clicking for him this series.
Links and Such
The Blazers and Warriors face off in Game 4 at the Moda Center on Monday night.