Golden State Warriors (3-0) at Portland Trail Blazers (0-3)
April 24, 2017, 7:30 PST
Watch: TNT, KGW; Listen: Rip City Radio 620 AM
Blazers injuries: Jusuf Nurkic (out), Ed Davis (out), Festus Ezeli (out)
Warriors injuries: Kevin Durant (questionable), Shaun Livingston (questionable), Matt Barnes (questionable), Kevon Looney (out), Steve Kerr (out)
SBN Affiliate: Golden State Of Mind
After an up and down season that saw them rally from 11 games under .500 in February to finish 41-41 and clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Portland Trail Blazers face a do-or-die situation as they hope to avoid a sweep, and the end of their season, at the hands of the Golden State Warriors tonight.
While I wanted the playoffs, and am enjoying this series at least as a way to see how Portland stacks up against the league’s elite, for many a loss tonight will put a merciful end to a season that was plagued with disappointment and underachievement. After an offseason that saw the team jump well over the salary cap to retain Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe, and Meyers Leonard—as well as sign free agents Festus Ezeli and Evan Turner—the Blazers struggled out of the gate, showing weaknesses at multiple positions and struggling mightily on the defensive end.
The team’s fortunes changed in February when Portland traded Mason Plumlee and a second-round pick for center Jusuf Nurkic and a first rounder in this year’s draft. Suddenly the Blazers had a big man who could make his presence felt on both ends and, after a 17-4 run, Portland squeaked into the playoffs—and a date with the defending champs—despite losing Nurkic to a fractured leg.
So far in the series, the Blazers have had their opportunities, being tied headed into the fourth quarter in Game 1 and having a 17-point lead in Game 3. Yet Portland stares down the barrel of what was considered by many to be inevitable: a sweep at the hands of one of the best NBA teams in recent memory.
While there was hope that Nurkic would come back and be a difference maker at some point in the series, it was announced on Sunday that he will not be active for Game 4, after the soreness in his leg increased throughout the game. Make no mistake—Nurkic, even dragging his leg up and down the court, changed the complexion of the game while he was on the floor. However, this was the right call. If Portland had managed to steal Game 1 and hold on to their Game 3 lead, this might be a more difficult decision, but at this point the Blazers need to think about ensuring that Nurkic is able to make the most of his summer training.
The Blazers will say all of the right things: “No one has ever come down from 3-0 in the first round. Why not us?”
“We need to just win one game at a time.”
“We’ve shown that we can hang with this team, we just need to put it together for 48 minutes.”
But this team is simply outmatched by the Warriors, with or without Kevin Durant. There’s no shame in losing a playoff series to them. The team has to know that, but no one wants to be swept, especially on their home court.
The saying, “we’re playing for pride” holds true here. This Blazers team faced massive amounts of criticism this season, much of it well-deserved. Allen Crabbe and Evan Turner didn’t perform level to their contracts, Meyers Leonard continued to regress and deal with injury, and the guard defense was so bad that there was legitimate chatter last winter about whether or not the team should consider trading Damian Lillard—a multiple-time All-Star and player who embraces Portland like no other—and building around CJ McCollum. Such talk would have been unheard of just six months ago and, fortunately, seems to have died down again.
The team knows they underachieved this season. They probably know there will be changes this offseason. “It’s a business,” as the refrain so often goes. Making this series competitive, with or without Nurkic, was the roster’s chance to redeem itself for the folly of November—February. Playing for pride? Absolutely. This was a group that said all winter long that they would figure it out and get right. They did, but it was too late. Now they are paying their penance for that slow start by virtue of who they’re matched up against.
With Nurkic out, the Blazers will need massive performances from Lillard and McCollum and, yet again, need someone else on the roster to step up. Turner has had a nice series, but what this team needs is a legitimate third threat, even if just for one game. Crabbe, Harkless, Aminu...you know the drill. With Durant questionable, the Blazers potentially have one less star to key in on in Game 4, but the Warriors are so good about going on quick runs that Portland needs to avoid going more than two consecutive possessions without scoring for pretty much the entire game.
In Game 3, the Blazers got tight in the fourth quarter and spent possession after possession going one-on-one with only one or even no passing after the initial inbound. It’s fine if McCollum or Lillard do this from time to time; not so much with Aminu and Turner.
Yes Portland is playing for nothing more than pride—the chance to maybe somehow reel off two in a row and have one last game on their home court. Then, after that, we’ll head to the offseason, where President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey has three first-round picks to play with and coach Terry Stotts can tweak the offense to more integrate Nurkic. Changes are coming, but first the team needs to show a little pride.
It’s not impossible. I certainly know better than to bet against LIllard or McCollum at this point. Those guys have too much self-respect and determination, not to mention elite talent, to go down without a serious fight.
But with Nurkic inactive, it’s the rest of the guys I’m not so sure about.