The Trail Blazers beat the Warriors 119-117 to clinch the Western Conference’s fifth seed on the 81st game of the season. That’s what happened, but that isn’t what it was. It was one of the best games of the season, and one that’ll be remembered no matter what happens from here on out.
The game started with the Trail Blazers struggling to take care of the ball against the swarming Golden State defense. The Warriors were hot early, but Portland weathered the storm mostly by getting Klay Thompson in foul trouble. Golden State’s defense was intense and nearly overwhelmed Portland, but their energy left one glaring hole open on every possession. They allowed Wesley Matthews two wide open threes and their defensive sloppiness offset Portland’s offensive sloppiness. Portland led by 4 after 12 minutes.
The home team stretched the lead to 7 on a Batum 3 early in the second quarter. Andre Iguodala continued to slice the Trail Blazer defense to bits, but the Warriors continued to ignore this and run their offense through anyone but Iggy. This along with the Dubs’ stubborn insistence that leaving passing lanes wide open is a valid way of defending the pick and roll kept Portland’s lead over 5.
Then Stephen Curry, uncharacteristically quiet to this point, unleashed what felt like the sort of fireworks you need a license to own in Oregon. Turns out it was just a handful of pop-its casually tossed on July 3rd when compared to what came later. Anyway, it seemed impressive at the time. He scored 7 straight and tied the game with 4 minutes left in the half.The Warriors ended the half on an 8-2 run to take a 52-44 lead into halftime.
The third quarter started with the Trail Blazers going to LaMarcus Aldridge in the post to great effect. The ball movement was great and Portland quickly cut the deficit. The Warriors eventually countered by bringing back their lane-jumping defense from earlier and driving and kicking when they had the ball. Even Andrew Bogut got in on the Rondo-by-committee action, which really, really can’t happen.
The Blazers started pushing the ball in transition toward the end of the third. Matthews and Aldridge carried the scoring load during a 17-4 run that put Portland up 1, 76-75, after 36 minutes.
In the fourth all hell and quite a bit of heaven broke loose, mostly due to Stephen Curry. I can’t properly describe how terrifying he was in the quarter to anyone who wasn’t watching. Damian Lillard has a pretty quick trigger, but his delivery is still deliberate and segmented. Stephen Curry, on the other hand, hits 30-footers by accident. There’s a Harlan Ellison short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” about a supercomputer who gains sentience and kills everyone on Earth, but keeps five of them alive to torture for its own amusement (it’s a great bedtime story). That computer is the best comparison I can make for Curry. It’s not that he was better, but that he was on a totally different plane from the five Trail Blazers he kept alive for kicks. He ended up with 47 points, the most by a Trail Blazers opponent since Kobe Bryant a year ago. Before that, you have to go back to…Kobe seven years ago. Portland weathered the Curry-cane with a balanced attack and a lot of Mo Williams. They led by three with seconds left, but Draymond Green channeled Curry at the end of regulation and drilled a stepback 23-footer to tie the game at 105.
The overtime was the height of three-point nirvana. Heroics by Matthews and Aldridge, along with the fusion reactor in Curry’s chest malfunctioning, put the Blazers up 2 with 10 seconds left. With partner in crime Kaly Thompson freshly fouled out, Curry somehow found Iguodala wide open on the wing, but he missed the three, and Wesley skied for the rebound as time wound down.
The Blazers are quickly approaching a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets. They will almost certainly be at a home-court disadvantage, and they will be the underdogs.
I’m not here to argue for Portland’s momentum and bulldog attitude letting them overcome the superior Rockets. They really should be underdogs. They’ll probably lose. And so will the Warriors against the Clippers. Portland has no answer for Harden and Howard, and Golden State is too volatile to do more than frighten Los Angeles.
I like to think about the NBA on a macro level as an evolutionary process. Every year, each iteration of each franchise puts forward its own set of traits, its own behavioral patterns. They all cast their dice. If they win, the whole NBA looks a little more like them the next year. One team every year comes the closest to the team that the league’s landscape was suited to shape, and that team gets to survive through June.
The two teams we saw last night aren’t making it. The odds are overwhelming–a bit over 95%, by Hollinger’s numbers–that neither of these teams wins the championship. Chances are, the 2014 Trail Blazers and Warriors will be left on the cutting room floor. These teams are both flawed in serious ways. Neither is the alchemic mix of personnel, scheme, and mindset necessary to be the 2013 Heat or the 2011 Mavericks.
But they gave us this game, and I’d rather appreciate that. If the aim of a team is to win the finals, both of these teams are probably failures. But Blazers fans won’t remember it that way, and this game is why. The mechanisms behind the NBA’s evolution were busy creating the Spurs or the Clips or whoever it ends up being, and the Warriors and Blazers were just a byproduct. But they played some great ball all game, and all year, and this game is all the proof you need that it was worthwhile.
The game will be described as having “playoff atmosphere” or even as being a “playoff preview.” That’s fine, but it misses the point. It turned my document of game notes into an incoherent pile of all-caps misspellings. It featured Mo Williams briefly channelling Kobe Bryant. It had Klay Thompson and Wesley Matthews trading threes that would have been absolute backbreakers in any other game, but which were instead forgotten moments later when answered with the next one. And in the middle of it all, it had Steph Curry going casually bonkers. This game was so fun that I refuse to speculate about its larger meaning (until I do just that in the next section). I don’t care if it’s indicative of this, a premonition of that, or a clear example of the third. It was fun as hell.
It’ll be drowned out by the rest of the game, but Thomas Robinson had some fantastic minutes in the first half. He finished with just 4 points and barely played in the second half (mostly likely for spacing concerns), but he looked about as good as I’ve seen him this year. There’s a tendency when Robinson does well to pin it on his energy and focus, as if all he has to overcome is his own weakness. That’s probably more of a factor than with most players, but I think he’s mostly just a high-variance player. In some situations he’s a godsend, in others a nightmare. Just when I decide I’m sick of watching him, he pulls down half a dozen contested rebounds, erases easy layups, and sprints the court like no other big man on the team. I doubt there’s a corner for him to turn–this is the player he is. Who knows, it might help in the playoffs (just think back to Chris Johnson guarding Dirk in 2011).
The Blazers had their share of turnover issues in this game, especially early. It’s a continuation of their season-long tendency to struggle against handsy teams. The Warriors came in ninth in the league in steals, and they clearly stepped up the ball-hawking and lane-jumping early to put the Blazers on their heels. It didn’t end up shutting the offense down, but it’s a little scary that the team is that easy to game-plan.
Nicolas Batum had an excellent game–18 points on 9 shots, 12 rebounds–but it should have been better. There was a stretch in the second quarter when Batum was whipping bullet passes to anyone who could catch them, but none of his teammates could convert. He had 5 assists, but he probably deserved the triple-double.
Bogut and David Lee were non-factors in this game (Lee due to foul trouble), which was a huge boost for Portland. Lopez and Aldridge weren’t playing great D; rather, Golden State just decided it didn’t need them for much on offense. Bogut’s passing remains a ton of fun, but this just wasn’t a big man’s game.
No Joel Freeland in this one. He was activated and dressed for the game, but he never saw the court. If Houston wins its next game, Portland’s regular season finale will be meaningless and I would expect to see a lot of Freeland in that game. It’ll be extremely helpful to know what he can do now rather than finding out in the playoffs. Speaking of which, Houston’s magic number for the 4-seed is now 1, so they only need a single victory against the Spurs or Pelicans (or a Portland loss to the Clippers) to get home-court advantage in the first round.
Terry Stotts is 6’8”. I was actually shocked to find this out.
At one particularly exciting moment after a Batum bucket, Mike Rice yelled something to the effect of “He’s got scissors for hands!” I’m baffled, so I’ll crowd-source. Does anyone know what this means?
This was probably the best Trail Blazers game of the season, given the situation, the opponent, and the performances. We tend to forget games, however thrilling, that don’t end in game-winners. That’s a shame. This was total lunacy, and I loved every moment of it.