The Portland Trail Blazers lost Game 2 of their 2019 NBA Playoffs series with the Golden State Warriors by just three points, a 114-111 final score breaking the hearts of the Portland faithful. You’ve seen the highlights, you know the obvious reasons the Blazers fell. Those may not tell the whole story. Here are three Game 2 truths that have been under-sold, realities that might affect Portland beyond the bounds of a single, 48-minute game.
The “deep playoffs run” version of the Trail Blazers would benefit greatly from Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala on the roster. Golden State has both. No slight to Al-Farouq Aminu or Moe Harkless. Both have made solid contributions this season, at times spectacular. During Game 2, we saw the archetypes of the genre...not “sometimes if you squint right this looks great”, but players who deliver night in and night out.
Who even has the guts to take on Damian Lillard in a late-game situation in isolation without their knees knocking? Iguodala made a potentially series-turning possession look like the second quarter of a random, regular-season Tuesday. And he’s not even the more heralded of the forward pairing.
That’s what talent and experience look like. The final play on Thursday showed everything the Warriors have, things the Blazers are still trying to learn. World Champions understand that there are no big moments. Big plays are just the same small ones you’ve made a thousand times, played out on a bigger stage.
The Blazers needed to make the end of Game 2 into one of those striking moments. Iguodala—and really, Golden State’s team defense in the second half—never let Portland get to the “striking” part. The Warriors defended hard, forced the opponent into an uncomfortable position, then completed the play.
Not only do the Blazers need that kind of talent, they need that kind of mindset.
After the Blazers got out to a 15-point halftime lead, they buckled under a Warriors run. By the end of the third period, the score was knotted.
Portland’s capitulation was spectacular and all-encompassing. A couple of Damian Lillard three-pointers aside, they struggled to do anything well. During the quarter, they attempted three shots at the rim and three beyond the arc. Every other field goal attempt came from the dreaded mid-range. Portland went 3-10 on those shots. Meanwhile Golden State attempted only two shots all period that weren’t three-pointers or chip shots. Adding insult to injury, the Warriors actually made one of those two (plus 6 of 11 from deep).
Shot selection doesn’t tell the whole story. When the Blazers fell apart on one end (offensively) their entire game disintegrated. Gone was the careful, active defense of the first half. They didn’t communicate well. They didn’t move or help appropriately. They left Golden State shots even their moms wouldn’t give them, for fear of somebody getting spoiled.
This was not the poised, veteran Trail Blazers squad we’re used to seeing in the 2019 playoffs. That team would not arrive again until the early fourth. Instead we saw every bad instinct of a young, confused group. Except the Blazers aren’t young anymore, and they’re supposed to be battling for a place in the NBA Finals and history. They won’t get close if they look more like the 2016 version of themselves.
Golden State’s trap on Portland’s guards once again played a key role in turning the game. That’s understandable; the Warriors defenders are skilled, long, and mean.
It’s much harder to understand why, in the face of a defense the Warriors employed to great effect in Game 1, the Blazers looked so shocked when it showed up. Literally and emotionally, Portland’s first steps in response to the trap were backwards.
You might remember the Blazers double-teaming Nikola Jokic from various positions during Round 2 of the playoffs. Their scheme eventually accomplished what it was supposed to, but Jokic never bowed in the face of it. He still saw the floor, even with the extra man coming. Most of the time he made the right play. Through it all, he remained calm and looked very much like his All-NBA self.
Portland’s guards haven’t looked anything like themselves when Golden State has come at them hard this series. Lillard and McCollum both favor the tactic of splitting double teams. That requires motion forward. That may not work against the Golden State trap. They’re rangy and appear to be watching for Portland’s pet move. Robbed of their favorite trick, the Blazers have backpedaled, causing the jaws of the trap to close tighter as scoring options recede and boundary lines approach.
The space/option issue is mirrored by the emotional one. Jokic’s first instinct when getting pressured was to stand in and scan for options. So far this series, Portland’s has been to shy away in confusion. As I said on Twitter during that third quarter, the Blazers greeted Golden State’s trap like a barefoot guy in bed greets a huge spider on the wall. How are you going to take a series if your gut reaction to the opponent is hesitation, followed by retreat?
This might have been part of what Kevin Durant was referencing in the Golden State victory tunnel when he said the Blazers didn’t really want to make it to the NBA Finals. Desire isn’t the issue. Everybody wants to get to the Finals in that sense. Actually making it requires an unflappable resolve that nobody will stop you for any reason, ever. If the opponent wants to prove differently, they have to absorb everything you can throw at them, remain standing, and still deliver a knockout blow to you. Either way, you’re...not...moving.
Not only are the Blazers moving in the face of Golden State’s defensive pressure, they’re running from it physically and mentally.
Maybe this is a lesson Portland has yet to learn. Maybe, as Durant intimated to CJ McCollum in a podcast last summer, the Blazers have gotten too comfortable with substitutes for actual success and don’t understand when OK is not OK. I tend to think the Blazers lack the take-no-prisoners mentality that Green imparts to his team. Robin Lopez and Mason Plumlee had backbone, but their games weren’t suited for Portland’s system long-term. Lillard has it, but when he’s the one the defense is stunning, the body can’t compensate for the loss of the head. Portland needs more than just Dame Time. They need clockwork resolve from every player in uniform.
Whatever the “whatever” is that we mentioned Golden State having in the pre-series analysis, we all saw it during Game 2. Portland had an opening. They got their toe in the door, then the Warriors slammed it shut, smashing Portland in the process. The Blazers were good enough to generate the opportunity. They didn’t play the meta-game well enough to follow through.
Game 2 wasn’t lost on a single play, no matter how prominent. It was lost because 12 minutes of chaos scattered over a couple critical stretches trumped 36 minutes of decent-to-good play from the Blazers.
That’s not an accident. The Warriors knew what they were doing. Portland appeared to know too, but their reaction was nowhere near NBA-Finals-worthy. When they needed to step up, they stepped backwards instead. They’ve got to recover from that, excise it from their repertoire, and hope it’s not too late.
Game 3 tips tonight in the Moda Center at 6:00, Pacific.