It took one full half for the Golden State Warriors to realize that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.
After demolishing the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, the Warriors entered Game 2 with a somewhat relaxed attitude. If anything, Game 1 showed that even without Kevin Durant, the Warriors were clearly the superior team. They relied on their tried-and-true principles of ball and off-ball movement as well as placing their faith in Stephen Curry’s ability to ignite and explode to run the Blazers out of the building.
That relaxed attitude almost betrayed them, as the Blazers punched the defending champs in the mouth to open Game 2. By halftime, the upstarts had erected a 65-50 lead behind CJ McCollum’s 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting from the field. After a slow start, Damian Lillard began to ignite, finishing the first half with 10 points on 3-for-5 shooting from beyond the arc.
Additionally, the Blazers’ supporting cast — in a 180-degree turn from Game 1 — were wholly present to give Lillard and McCollum help. The team shot 11-for-22 from 3-point range in the first half, buoyed by shot-making from the likes of Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Rodney Hood, and Seth Curry.
The Blazers also had some help from their opponents — the Warriors finished the first half with 10 turnovers that the Blazers were able to translate into 18 points. The Blazers defense, who caught a lot of flak and criticism for their ill-conceived strategy of defending the Warriors’ shooters in Game 1 using drop coverage, managed to defend well during the first half, holding the Warriors to a 3-for-13 clip on 3-point field goals (23.1 percent), with Stephen Curry being the only player in double digits with 19 points.
Reality started to set in for the Warriors. Yes, this Portland team, on paper, was inferior in more ways than one. Despite the absence of Durant, the Warriors had plenty of tools at their disposal, and it was those very same tools that allowed them to dissect the hapless Blazers.
But this is still a best-of-7 series — the Warriors will have to keep their foot on their opponents’ necks for 3 more games. Such pressure slightly wavered, allowing the Blazers to run loose and show the world that they weren’t going down without a fight.
Adjustments were sure to be made. The Warriors are too intelligent and too talented to just wilt and completely give this game away. Defensively, the Warriors needed to find a way to get the ball out of either McCollum’s or Lillard’s hands and to let the Blazers’ supporting cast make the plays or try to score.
Putting pressure on Lillard and McCollum worked in the 3rd quarter, after the Warriors started to aggressively trap them with impunity. The first notable instance came with around 9 minutes left in the period. After Curry hits a 3, the Warriors respond on the other end by trapping Lillard with Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney. The pressure gets to Lillard, forcing him to turn the ball over and allowing Curry to shoot a jumper on the other end. Within seconds, the Warriors cut the deficit from 16 to 11.
Seeing that it worked the previous possession, the Warriors elect to trap again. They force McCollum into a corner, eventually making him give the ball up. Harkless’ attempt at the rim is blocked by Looney, and the Warriors push the pace. Draymond Green sets a screen that blindsides Lillard, and a trailing Thompson is left wide open for the 3.
Much is made of the Warriors’ penchant to create offensive avalanches that overwhelm their opponents. But the other side of that equation — consecutive stops on defense — is often overlooked. Curry and Thompson each play good defense on McCollum and Lillard, forcing them to miss and allowing the Warriors to establish offensive momentum. A 3 by Thompson and an offensive rebound by Looney completes the 13-0 run that cuts the deficit to a mere 3 points.
A 39-24 3rd quarter by the Warriors allows them to enter the final period with an 89-all deadlock, helped in part by Jordan Bell’s contributions on both ends of the floor. Eager to prove himself useful after a regular season mired with disappointment, Bell showed that when called upon, he is still a capable contributor off the bench — steals on the defensive end, acting as a roll-man threat in the pick-and-roll, making the correct reads and passes, and also being active on the offensive boards.
In the beginning stages of the 4th quarter, the Warriors were unable to carry the momentum they built in the 3rd. With just under 7 minutes to go in regulation, the Blazers take a 102-94 lead, with the Warriors’ second unit unable to gain separation and unable to prevent the Blazers from running away with another lead.
Steve Kerr re-inserts four of his starting five (with Looney as the center instead of Andrew Bogut) and sees results immediately. A high pick off their staple motion weak set allows Curry to use his individual ball-handling brilliance to take advantage of a mismatch on Meyers Leonard.
After a successful stop on Lillard, the Warriors score on a short roll 2-on-1 situation, but without the usual involvement of Curry and Green. This time, it is Thompson who is trapped. He manages to get the ball to Andre Iguodala on the short roll. The 2-on-1 is created, allowing Iguodala to feed the ball to Looney for the dunk.
The Warriors run another motion weak pick-and-roll for Curry, who splits the defense and manages to penetrate and finish over Evan Turner for the bucket.
After being exploited on defense for 3 consecutive possessions, Leonard compensates by burying a 3 off of a feed from Lillard, who is forced to give up the ball due to being double-teamed. This gives the Blazers another 8-point cushion, but their defense immediately gives up a straight-line layup from Green, who blows past his defender and takes advantage of the absence of help defense.
A free-falling object under the sole influence of gravity has an acceleration of 9.8 meters per second squared, but Curry’s influence due to his gravity seems to have an infinite and immeasurable amount of impact. With Green handling the ball up top, Curry curls around Iguodala, who is left alone due to two defenders attaching themselves to Curry. Green’s precise bounce pass finds its way to Iguodala, who goes up for the easy dunk.
Green continues to deliver on both ends of the floor. With Lillard in danger of being trapped again, he heaves a pass to the other side of the corner. McCollum catches the ball and prepares to score against Curry. But Green is in position behind him and blocks McCollum’s attempt.
On the other end, Curry gets trapped off of the pick-and-roll, triggering another short roll pass to Green, who takes advantage of another 2-on-1 situation. He lobs the ball to Looney over the helpless Seth Curry, and the Warriors successfully score off of a defensive stop.
In the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, Green did an excellent job — especially in the first 2 games — of disrupting James Harden lobs to Clint Capela. He uses that same lob-busting ability to blow up an attempted alley-oop to Leonard, leading to Green pushing the pace on the other end that eventually leads to 3 free throws for Curry.
With the game approaching the 1-minute mark, Green delivers again on the defensive end. Matched up against Lillard, Green narrowly avoids being baited into a foul, and Lillard throws up a wild shot. Fortunately for the Blazers, the ball finds its way back to them and into the hands of Seth Curry, who knocks down a 3 to give the Blazers a 1-point lead.
On the other end, the Warriors re-take the lead with another Curry/Green pick-and-roll. The pass makes its way to Green on the short roll. Ever the accurate passer while on the move, Green throws a lob to Looney, who dunks it in.
The Blazers manage to get McCollum matched up against Looney, who does a great job of making McCollum work hard to try to get past him. When McCollum finally manages to blow by, Green is there to contest the floater and force it to clank off the back of the rim.
With just under 30 seconds to go, the Warriors run yet another Curry/Green pick-and-roll. As usual, Curry attracts two defenders, but he takes his time and slowly makes his way inside. At the same time, Green is running alongside him, uncovered and rolling toward the rim. Curry finds a window to pass the ball to Green, who lays the ball in the basket to give the Warriors a 3-point lead with 12 seconds remaining.
Down by only one possession, it was obvious as to who the Blazers were going to in this clutch situation. Lillard takes control of the ball and prepares to go up against one of the premier defenders in the league. Curiously, the Blazers don’t even attempt to get a switch onto Curry. Iguodala stays on Lillard, hounding him and waiting for an opportunity to strike. When Lillard finally has no choice but to attempt a shot, he exposes the ball in front of Iguodala, which is more or less a death sentence for the Blazers’ chances.
After giving up 65 points in the first half and allowing the Blazers to shoot 48.9 percent from the field, 50.0 percent from 3-point range, and allowing an offensive rating of 127.5, the Warriors defense closed the floodgates, sealed up all of the leaks and cracks, and virtually put the clamps on the Blazers offense.
In the second half, the Blazers scored only 46 points on 38.5 percent shooting from the field and 41.2 percent from 3-point range, with an offensive rating of 95.8. Coupled with their inability to maintain their good defensive showing in the first half, the Blazers let a potential statement game slip from their grasp.
With a 2-0 lead heading into the 2-game road portion of the series, the Warriors are comfortably sitting in the driver’s seat, fully in control of their destiny and needing to win at least one of the following games at the Moda Center. With a streak of 21 straight playoff series with a road win, the Warriors should be feeling confident of their chances at bringing this series to a quick conclusion.
In a game where the Blazers were expected to make several adjustments on defense — and to their credit, they were able to adjust in the first half and be effective at stifling the defending champs’ offensive attack — it was the Warriors’ defensive stalwarts, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, who led the rally on both ends of the floor during the second half.
Their performance last night gave credence to that classic sports adage that will forever ring true for as long as the sport of basketball exists: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
That has been the case these past 5 years, and if this performance on the defensive end is maintained all the way for the rest of these playoffs, then the Warriors might very well be taking Larry home for the third straight year.
Ten wins down, 6 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.