The Portland Trail Blazers opened their game against the Golden State Warriors on Friday night like they preferred to be anywhere else, doing anything else but playing basketball. The Warriors leapt out to an 18-point lead, sawing off the Blazers like a team full of chainsaw-wielding horror villains. But the Blazers must have been pure and noble over their Christmas break, because even though the baddies caused tons of damage, they could not vanquish the young ingenues. Play by play, rebound by rebound, Portland got back into the game. By halftime they had almost tied it. In the third, they surged ahead. The scoring prowess of Golden State’s guards was matched by the furious intensity of Portland’s frontcourt.
The long struggle led to an intense, frantic fourth period where the backcourts for both teams put on a scoring display...or tried to. The duo of Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole turned out more clutch than Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons. When the final credits played, Golden State had earned a 118-112 victory.
Whether the Blazers should celebrate or rue the evening depends on perspective. They played near-heroically just getting back in it, actually commanding a lead in the fourth period. That was a credit to them. But turnovers and missed shots cost the Blazers more than their energy could compensate for, and the defending champs proved more poised in the game-deciding moments. That’s not something the Blazers can walk away from lightly.
Damian Lillard scored 34 points in defeat, but he shot 12-29 from the field getting there, 4-15 from the three-point arc. Anfernee Simons added 22 on 8-21 shooting, 4-11 from distance.
Jordan Poole led his team to victory with 41 points on 14-23 shooting, 5-10 from the arc. Klay Thompson added 31, shooting 11-22 and 7-15.
The game started out with Gary Payton II receiving his championship accolades for the Warriors’ 2022 title. The entire arena was enthusiastic at the return of a favorite player. Payton was not available to help Portland on the court yet, nor was center Jusuf Nurkic. But Golden State was missing Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins, so they weren’t exactly sad on Portland’s behalf.
Klay Thompson made up for the absence of his backcourt mate by scoring twice on two possessions against smaller defenders. Then Jordan Poole hit a twisting reverse layup off of a straight-line drive. Then Thompson hit a three. In 90 seconds, four possessions total, Golden State was up 9-0. The Pepto Bismol ad that played across NBA League Pass during the break was probably indicative of Head Coach Chauncey Billups’ condition given his team’s start.
Damian Lillard hit a fadeaway jumper coming out of the timeout, but Thompson got it right back, heading into double-figure scoring in the first 2:30 of the contest. The Warriors had his matchups circled, evidently. Height has its privileges.
The Blazers had real trouble hitting their three-pointers during the opening minutes of the game. That wasn’t helping them, especially with Golden State starting 3-6 beyond the arc. Since the Warriors were also scoring at the rim, the game only got uglier. Jerami Grant tried to save his team with post moves and spins, but those were infrequent and slow, while the Warriors scored frequently and fast. Golden State led 19-6 at the 7:00 mark of the period.
Lillard tried to take over once again, but the Warriors were all over him. Portland subbing in second-unit players for him to whip the ball to didn’t help. The Warriors weren’t hitting every shot like they had in the opening minutes, but with Portland’s scoring ground to a halt, every three Golden State hit felt like it weighed a million.
And then, wouldn’t you know it, they did start making every shot again. At that point it didn’t matter what the Blazers did. Shaedon Sharpe had a put-back dunk. Josh Hart made a three and drew fouls on a drive later. It made ridiculous look tolerably bad, but little more.
When Ty Jerome hit a halfcourt heave to close the quarter, it was less spectacular feat and more, “It figures.” Golden State led 41-25 after one, and it took hot shooting by Portland late to get it that close. Klay Thompson had 15, Jordan Poole 14 after one. Golden State shot 65% in the quarter.
The Blazers scored the first ten points of the second period using a “cheat code” lineup including Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, and Shaedon Sharpe. The points came a little ugly, but they came. That run saved what otherwise would have been an impossible game, but it came at the cost of playing the starting guards extra minutes. We’d have to see if that would cost them in the fourth. Heads up, though: without scoring at this moment, the fourth would have been a moot point anyway.
Simons was a key to the Blazers’ production in the second, hitting three field goals early, then a three later on. Lillard added a couple himself. It was like a collective exhale rippled through the team.
Golden State wasn’t going to stay cold forever, though. After Portland heated up, the Warriors did too. A couple of buckets were enough to push the lead back to double-digits and the fight was on again. Golden State started drawing fouls—a key component of Portland’s comeback too—and the margin stayed commensurately big. The Warriors led 54-40 halfway through the period.
After that midway mark, the Warriors started missing three-pointers while Portland took the ball inside. That provided an opening, but the Blazers couldn’t manufacture enough points to make it count. Golden State turnovers and misses should have led to easy run-outs. They just didn’t.
Portland was able to chip away, however. That was something. In an inversion of the first quarter, Golden State’s zero-scoring made every Portland bucket feel bigger than it was. Turnover after turnover led Golden State away from the promised land.
When Lillard hit a three with 41 seconds left, Portland trailed only 60-56. It was a miraculous comeback, setting the stage for an honest second half instead of a blowout. Dame had 19 at the break.
The third period was a master class by the Blazers on how to pick apart a team that takes too much for granted. After their hot start, the Warriors presumed that everything would fall: good, bad, or indifferent. Portland taught them different. They got out to Warriors shooters, shutting down the easy escape route Golden State had used all game. When the threes refused to fall, the Warriors had no response other than the immortal words of Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind: “Wha happen???”
Just as impressively, the Blazers refused to take the bait beyond the arc themselves. They hit them—four threes in the quarter, in fact—but they took the ball inside. Inside! And when they did so, they found that the Warriors were no better defensively than the Blazers, themselves are.
Second-chance points were huge in the period, as Portland turned misses into conversions thanks to the hard work of Drew Eubanks, Josh Hart, and Jabari Walker. Instead of a scattershot, 12-gauge impression, Portland’s shot chart looked like the tight cluster of an expert marksman at his home range. Seven shots in the paint, plus assorted free throws, lifted the Blazers’ scoring from the bottom, making the three-point waves on top devastating instead of a cute ripple in an otherwise-empty pool.
The Blazers took the lead at the 10:15 mark of the third on a Grant three-pointer, then threw body blow after body blow until the Warriors were doubled over. A little after the 6:00 mark, Portland led by six. A Lillard layup with 4:00 remaining made it eight. A floater by Hart with a minute left stretched it to ten. That’s the way it worked: not a fire hose, but a basement flood the Warriors just couldn’t contain.
A couple miscues for Portland and triples for Golden State marred the very end of the period from the Blazers’ perspective, but when the horn sounded at the end of the third, Portland led 96-88. It was an ode to hard work (thanks, Jabari!) and perseverance, a fantastic way to save not just the game, but perhaps this part of the season.
If the Blazers thought the end of the game was going to be easy because they had a startling lead, they had a lesson to learn just as the Warriors had. Golden State identified what brought Portland success in the third—inside scoring and rebounding energy—and promptly co-opted both at the start of the fourth. They drove, ripped down boards, tied up dribblers...they got right in Portland’s collective faces.
Anfernee Simons gave the Blazers their lone strikes in the first three minutes of the fourth—a three and a runner—to try and stem Golden State’s frenzy. Fortunately, Portland’s own defense remained fairly solid. The Warriors also lacked reliable scorers. Open shots caromed just off instead of falling through as they had in the much-less-stressful first period. Golden State couldn’t marry point production with energy, and Portland’s lead remained at eight points past the 9:00 mark.
Chauncey Billups brought Damian Lillard in early just in case, though.
As the fourth unfolded, Golden State renewed their commitment to doubling Lillard, making anybody else beat them. Jerami Grant obliged, driving the lane against a skewed defense, converting with relative ease. At the 6:10 mark the Blazers led 105-100 and had every chance to bring it home.
Simons did his best to ensure a strong finish, stroking a three on Portland’s first possession after the mid-quarter timeout. Lillard followed with a layup a trip later and Portland was up eight.
If the Blazers could have stopped Golden State from getting to the rim, they might have sealed the game up tight. They couldn’t, as Poole and Jonathan Kuminga punished them right at the hoop. Then Poole hit a three, and it was uh-oh time. Portland’s lead was down to one, 110-109, with 2:40 remaining. Guard defense strikes again.
Grant and Poole each gave up turnovers on the next two possessions, but the Blazers couldn’t survive a contested Lillard three-point miss and the resulting Kuminga run-out for a dunk. Golden State stuffed Lillard, endured a Simons three-point miss, and then watched as Thompson came alive again, hitting a three. In a flurry, the Warriors led 114-110 with just 96 seconds left.
In the battle of the guards, the Warriors were having the last laugh.
Portland had another chance, but Golden State snuffed it as the Blazers committed a five-second violation after their final timeout, unable to inbounds the ball.
After Thompson and Draymond Green missed threes, Lillard hit a layup, pulling his team within two, 114-112, with a minute left.
Poole turned the ball over, giving the Blazers a break, but Lillard continued a rough period, getting it stripped in return. Donte DiVincenzo stroked a three on the next trip, putting Golden State up 117-112. The Blazers had no timeouts. Knowing his team had less than a shot clock to work with at that point, Simons pulled up for a quick, desperation three. It missed, and that was the ballgame.
When Portland had the energy advantage, they also had the game in hand. When Golden State evened out the effort, their execution—though hardly flawless—gave them the edge over the disconnected Blazers.
Stay tuned for our extended analysis, coming soon!
The Blazers now come home for a single game on Monday night versus the Detroit Pistons with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start time.