Damian Lillard sat at his locker after one of his greatest career performances, trying to recollect and gather his thoughts in the aftermath of the storm. Ensconced in the silence of it all, he stared blankly ahead before departing for his postgame presser.
"As the game was winding down, I was just like man, this was the perfect opportunity, we played how we talked about wanting to play in film. We played hungry, we played physical. We were not fun to play against tonight. Defensively or offensively, and it wasn't easy what we went out there and did. I think it was six minutes, at that point, that's when you gotta man up, you gotta nut up and get it done. Scratch and claw, whatever is necessary, you got to go out there and do it. That's when Golden State separated themselves. That was the difference in the game."
Lillard wasn't necessarily defeated but acknowledged repeatedly that his team had outplayed the Warriors. Yet he kept going back to the fact they could not close when it mattered. The Portland Trail Blazers, losing by nearly the same points as Game 1 in the 110-99 loss, just could not find the extra something that the Draymond Green-led Warriors live on. And in doing so, Lillard played a part in one of the most chilling themes in this great regular season: opposing teams come into Oracle Arena, lose a game, and feel proud about the effort they put together despite the macro lack of success. This is what the Golden State Warriors have become, not just one of the greatest teams of all time, but a team you feel fortunate to merely compete against.
Just less an hour before Lillard sat down at the podium, he put together his thrilling rendition of Stephen Curry's Greatest Hits on his floor. Over and over again, Lillard bounced up and around picks from Plumlee and whoever would simply lend him a couple inches of space. Each and every time, the Warriors cut the once 17-point deficit to a couple possessions, he would answer with step-backs, step-throughs, fadeaways, and a never-ending variety of silencers.
Repeatedly, the loudest crowd this entire season and maybe through the last one as well, had to sit down. The atmosphere last night felt like it was cultivated from an underdog perspective. Without Stephen Curry, the crowd knew there was no bailout coming, no excellence that remained constant and the seemingly inevitable. For the first time in a long time, there was a smattering of doubt without the MVP. And the Oracle faithful responded with the kind of sound that has my ears ringing at 2AM several hours after the game. That is not a joke nor hyperbole.
Then Lillard sat them down one final time with an icy 3 at the third quarter buzzer. Given no choice, and due to matchups and lack of offensive flow, Steve Kerr finally relented and inserted Festus Ezeli into the game.
And so began one of the greatest defensive quarters in recent memory by the best crunch-time team in the world all started by rarely used center Festus Ezeli. Inserted into the game seemingly as a last resort after Anderson Varejao's ineffectiveness, Marreese Speights' clanking, and Andrew Bogut's inability to cover the corner on PNRs, Ezeli took over the game defensively as GSW allowed merely 12 points in 12 minutes.
Coach Kerr repeatedly mentioned Ezeli's impact before catching himself and praising the rest of the team, "He changed the whole game with his pick-and-roll defense and presence around the rim."
Kerr interestingly mentioned Ezeli's lack of flaw in the minutes against Houston in his recent lack of play.
For the coup de grace of performances, Draymond Green sat next to Festus Ezeli during Ezeli's moment and essentially became his agent. Once Andre Iguodala's job to effusively praise his teammate's play like Klay Thompson, Dray could not stop himself from injecting himself into answers on Ezeli's impact.
"This team has a lot of talent. I trust the coaches. We all do." - Festus on coming in.
"We all trust the process. There are times where Coach Kerr goes a weird way of subbing. I thought he was going to come in with four minutes in the first quarter. One thing about Coach Kerr and the coaching staff is they have a great feel about how the game is going. Earlier today after shootaround, he in the weight room doing cardio. He showed up. That says a lot about his character."
Draymond wasn't done.
"He changed the entire game for us. Some people will say he caught a couple lobs and had a putback. Nah, it's not that. Did you see him on the ball screen against Damian Lillard when Lillard took over the game. did you see him stop the ball screen on McCollum and block Plumlee's shot? That's what I look at."
I don't think I need to go into a detailed breakdown at this point.
Festus on his season, "It's been a heck of a ride, to be honest. I was a little down when I had to have surgery again but I have amazing teammates. They motivate me more than anything. I just want to be out there with my brothers."
"I keep saying, this kid that just started playing basketball ten years ago, all of a sudden I'm in the locker room with these great guys. I'm just really blessed, to be honest."
Draymond is of course not even close to finished, "I don't mean to butt in but when I look at his season, I don't see a bunch of ups and downs. I see him having an amazing year. He improved on everything you said he had to improve on, his hands, his rebounding, his post moves, he did it."
He went on to break down the game himself, admitting how he was "thirsty" for shots and that when he and Klay settled down, the rest of the team went with them.
But mostly, this team was about the Golden State Warriors, their defense of their title and the defense of a lifetime. But beyond just that, a humanizing aspect of one of the nicest people on the team. Born in Nigeria and focused on academics, graduating high school at 14, and majoring in biology at Vanderbilt, Festus Ezeli wasn't part of the ball is life mentality that most athletes are associated with. But with the work ethic that rivals his teammates, Ezeli is on track to score a contract that will set him for life and one he claims he's not thinking about.
Draymond Green, on the other hand, has something else to say to that when asked about how much Ezeli is going to get paid this offseason, "Big Money!"
That Golden State Warriors defense is pretty money too.