The Golden State Warriors provided Gary Payton II with his championship ring before the game, and then gave the rest of the Portland Trail Blazers a knuckle sandwich shortly thereafter. In a game filled with turbulent ups-and-downs, Portland shook off a devastatingly-slow start and provided themselves with a legitimate shot at winning, before running out of gas down the stretch in a 118-112 loss.
Despite a 34-point game from Damian Lillard and strong offensive back-up from Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant, the Blazers went absolutely ice-cold on both ends of the floor over the final frame, pushing them to an 18-17 record and into the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. Below are a few thoughts from tonight’s defeat.
A Game of Runs:
Anyone watching tonight’s game could tell that the Trail Blazers were in the middle of a rollercoaster with inconsistency to the highest degree. But, to put some numbers to it, in just this game alone, they: (1) had their second-highest scoring quarter, putting up 40 in the third quarter, (2) followed it up with their second-lowest quarter, with 16 in the fourth, (3) gave up their highest-scoring first quarter of the season with the Warriors’ 41-point onslaught, and then (4) turned an 18-point deficit into an 11-point second half lead … all in the same game, and still lost.
As the adage goes, basketball is a game of runs. The team who finishes with the final one is often the one who proves victorious. If NBA games concluded at 40 minutes, as opposed to 48, the Blazers likely come out victorious; if games extended to 50 minutes, perhaps, even, they have one more rally. Unfortunately, when the going got toughest, Portland reverted to the worst of its tendencies — isolation ball and uninspiring transition defense — and that strategy proved fruitless against the teamwork-heavy Warriors.
When Drew Eubanks blocked Jonathan Kuminga’s layup with 4:49 left in the fourth, the Blazers sported an eight-point advantage and, according to ESPN, a 94.5 percent chance to win. Unfortunately, a 41-point game from Jordan Poole and a 31-point reinforcement from Klay Thompson rewrote a story we know all too well: a Warriors run, and subsequently a Warriors win.
Not Your Average Homecoming:
One could never accuse Damian Lillard of lacking motivation for any game. Though, in observing him year-in and year-out, it’s clear that specific matchups — Lakers games, battles against similar top-tier point guards, and games against Golden State, whom his highest scoring average comes against — generally provide some extra oomph.
The end result wasn’t a net positive in tonight’s game, and Lillard did struggle to free himself against hounding defense in the Blazers’ fourth quarter collapse. But, that shouldn’t completely undermine how brilliant he was in ramping his game up a notch following Anfernee Simons’ scary fall that sent him to the locker room early in the third.
Superstars can often sense the need to take over, and in that regard, Lillard was limousine-riding, jet-flying, switch-flipping, and most importantly, lead-chipping. Portland didn’t get their first lead until the 10:15 mark of the third, and, thanks to his orchestrating team ball, they positioned themselves with a chance to win.
Adding in tonight’s game, Lillard now averages 31.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on 46-38-93 percentage splits in his last five on the road against Golden State. In the grand scheme, and without a win, it won’t mean much, but it’s noteworthy for the franchise’s star.
Hitting the Snooze Button:
One of the teams in tonight’s game was well-rested and hadn’t played since Monday.
The other? This was their third game in four nights, all of which coming with their best player on the sidelines. You wouldn’t know it from watching tonight, but the Warriors are the latter of the two.
This matchup was ripe for the pickings for Portland to take advantage of an undermanned lineup, even without Jusuf Nurkic in the fold. Instead, they told us the game started at 7:00 pm PT; the Blazers didn’t start playing professional basketball until around the 8 o’clock hour.
Before you could even utter the words, “Let’s go Blazers,” the Warriors were so far away, they wouldn’t have even heard you. In a fashion that only they can, Golden State propped up a 33-15 first quarter lead. Portland did eventually shake the cobwebs, finishing with a 25-point opening frame … which wouldn’t have been a problem, except that Thompson and Poole by themselves combined for 29 points and seven 3-pointers.
Golden State just played with more energy, in short. It was as close to a rendition of the “Seven Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns as you might find tonight. They ran Draymond Green in the point guard role, divvying up assists on split cut actions, matchup hunting smaller guards, backdoor cuts, and transition 3-pointers, and ultimately, as a result, the Warriors won the much-anticipated guards duel and eventually tonight’s game.
Other Random Notes:
- The Warriors opened up the 18-point lead, as noted, in the first quarter. But they didn’t take their first free throws until the 7:18 mark of the second quarter. The first 16 minutes were just complete buckets for them.
- It was of interest that Jerami Grant — who played a solid game — wasn’t guarding either Poole or Thompson as much as one might expect in that first quarter. He often guards the opposition’s best perimeter player, even if they are a guard. Tonight, they mixed it up a bit.
- The Warriors’ commentators seemed to be a bit disgruntled by some of Damian Lillard’s free throw attempts tonight, even arguing that, “If his name were Fred Lillard, he wouldn’t have gotten that call.” Somewhere, there’s a Mr. Fred Lillard watching tonight’s game wondering what he did to deserve this.
- The Blazers ran an eight-man rotation in the midst of injuries, with Lillard, Hart, and Simons all crossing the 40+ minute mark. These sorts of minutes are only nice when wins accompany.
If you haven’t already, take a glance at Dave Deckard’s instant recap of tonight’s game.
The Blazers open up the 2023 calendar year with a home tilt against the Detroit Pistons, live on Monday, Jan. 2 at 7:00 pm PT.