Enmeshed in a 10-team Battle Royale for seeding in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers desperately needed a win on Tuesday night versus the Golden State Warriors to back up their Sunday victory against the Houston Rockets. For two quarters, it looked like they’d get it. Behind amazing scoring and passing from Damian Lillard, the Blazers built a 23-point lead in the first half, preserving 17 of it heading into intermission. But a devastating third quarter from the Warriors erased, then reversed, Portland’s edge, leading to a hard-fought fourth.
Unfortunately the Blazers proved both tired and undermanned in that final period. A box-and-one defense against Lillard kept him from getting shots off. His teammates couldn’t produce any points outside of the foul line. The cumulative effect produced a 123-105 Warriors win, disappointing considering Portland’s place in the standings and the hypothetical ease of winning a game that you lead by two dozen points.
Lillard scored 25 in the loss, shooting 9-21 from the field. Jerami Grant added 24, courtesy of 13-15 shooting from the foul line. Matisse Thybulle shot 5-6 from the three-point arc. Jordan Poole led the Warriors with 29 and Klay Thompson added 23.
The Warriors must have read the headlines from Sunday night, as they started the game double-teaming Lillard like he was the only player on the floor. Dame’s passes looked ludicrously easy under those circumstances. He found Mattise Thybulle for a three directly, also Drew Eubanks who passed to Thybulle and Cam Reddish for two more, giving Lillard the hockey assist.
Those triples put the Blazers up 11-4. But Golden State got their own three-point strikes from Jordan Poole, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson, closing the gap quickly. Eubanks remained a terror on the offensive glass, though, as Thybulle forced a pair of turnovers on the other end. It was a cobbled-together approach, but serviceable.
For all the Warriors tried, their defense just wasn’t up to the task early. Lillard beat a soft double-team for a three, then Nassir Little swished from the coffin corner, completely undefended in the same spot Thybulle had splashed from before.
But these are the Trail Blazers. Criticizing someone else’s defense is like cheesecake criticizing yogurt for being fatty. The Warriors continued to hit from deep as well, keeping them close even though Lillard scored again on a drive.
Portland did rebound well and force turnovers, through the middle minutes. Then Lillard started getting downright hot at the lead expanded exponentially.
When Lillard sat, Little got even more active on offense, keeping his team comfortably ahead despite Golden State suddenly discovering they could score inside. The Warriors reversed the rebounding trend late, pounding the smaller Blazers bench with offensive boards.
Without doubt, the balance weighed towards Portland’s side in the first. 15 points from a HEAVILY-GUARDED Lillard, 6-12 three-point shooting, and nice scoring from the bench staked them to an impressive 41-27 lead.
During the break between the first and second periods, the Popeye Warriors ate their spinach. Without Lillard on the floor, their defensive task became a bit easier. They responded by upping the intensity, staying in front of drivers, closing out on shooters, and bumping bigs under the glass. They closed the lead to single digits almost immediately.
Head Coach Chauncey Billups didn’t let Lillard rest long. As soon as the Warriors threatened, The Letter 0 came back on the court. He bent the defense so severely that Jerami Grant and Shaedon Sharpe got instant buckets, even though both had missed their prior, better-defended attempts just before. Golden State continued to push the ball inside, but their slower scoring was easy to match for Portland. The Blazers remained vigilant at the arc. As long as they kept that up and didn’t let Golden State get offensive boards, they kept the opponent at bay easily.
Green went to the locker room with a sore wrist a couple minutes into the period. That took the starch out of Golden State’s already-permissive defense. Jerami Grant smelled blood in the water and started attacking hard, drawing a half-dozen free throw attempts. Green would return with 5:20 remaining, but Portland owned a 54-36 lead at that point.
The Warriors’ shooting and ball handling did not improve during the later minutes of the second. Turnovers and bricks gave them no traction to make up the scoreboard gap. The Blazers led 65-48 at the half.
The Warriors are many things, but “foolish” is not among them. Coming out of the locker room after halftime, they made a clear commitment to attacking the lane, not with slower post attempts, but off the quick dribble. The Blazers had trouble compensating because...Portland. Six easy layups in less than five minutes got the offense cranking for the Bay Boys. When Lillard committed a semi-silly foul against Jordan Poole shooting a three with 6:30 remaining (Poole was 1-5 from distance to that point), the Warriors cut the lead to single digits again, 74-65. A Poole layup a possession later would give Golden State a 13-2 run in the first 6:00.
That wasn’t all, either. After an offensive rebound, Poole hit a three, cutting the lead to 4. Then he drew another foul on Dame, his fourth, with 5:00 remaining in the third.
Portland’s offense was hardly stellar during this stretch. They hit only 1 of their first 9 three-pointers in the period. They also missed most of their mid-range attempts and an astonishing 66% of their shots in the lane. Add in a couple of turnovers and you understand why Golden State’s increased offense brought them back nearly all the way. Shaedon Sharpe tried to provide some offense but he got stuck on Thompson on the other end, a severe mismatch for the rookie. When Klay hit a three with 1:40 remaining, Golden State had the lead, 79-78.
Jonathan Kuminga making the Blazers look silly in the paint didn’t help.
When the dust cleared, the Warriors had scored 22 points in the paint in the third period alone and led 87-82 heading into the fourth.
Up 5 at the end of three doesn’t seem that remarkable until you consider Golden State was down 17 to start the period.
Jerami Grant came alive again at the start of the fourth, hitting a shot and two free throws in quick succession. But Jordan Poole matched him with a three and a chippy himself. With the Warriors up, instead of down, every three-pointer they hit seemed devastating. So, too, Portland turnovers. The Blazers endured both as they struggled to right themselves.
That whole, pesky “points in the paint” thing never got resolved, though. In the end, that spelled doom for the Blazers. Even when they could score—and they seldom did comfortably—they found Golden State returning the favor quickly and easily.
A big part of the Warriors’ success was bottling up a tiring Lillard. Dame attempted only a single shot in the first 6:00 of the period, a stretch that saw them fall behind 104-93. Grant’s free throws were the only reliable source of scoring, and it just wasn’t enough.
Stay tuned for extended analysis coming soon!
The Blazers turn right around to face the New Orleans Pelicans tomorrow night at home with a 7:00 PM start.