There was a practiced air to the way the Golden State Warriors donned their championship hats and posed for photos around the Western Conference trophy Monday night inside Moda Center, for they had done the same routine each of the past four springs.
But there was also something unique to their celebration following a 119-117 overtime victory against Portland in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, and not only that star guard Stephen Curry opted to cradle his infant son, Canon, rather than handle the hardware.
The Warriors have a tendency of making victories look easy. This was anything but.
“In the end it’s a sweep,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “But we had to scrap and claw for three of the four victories. This is a lot more difficult than it may have appeared.”
In the days leading up to their series-clinching win, the Warriors had talked openly of wanting a sweep in order to secure nine days off before the NBA Finals. Rest is among the most precious commodities during the postseason — especially for a team missing three of its top six players to injury Monday.
The Warriors will get that rest — and the distinction of becoming the first team since Boston, 53 years ago, to advance to five consecutive NBA Finals.
But they had to work extra for it, winning for a third consecutive game after trailing by at least 17 points.
“We know we can cover 17 points in a matter of three, four minutes,” said Draymond Green, whose 22-foot jump shot with 3:30 to play in regulation pushed his team ahead for the first time since 7:20 remained before halftime. “We’re never out of the fight.”
Portland guard Damian Lillard, playing with separated ribs, scored 28 points and added a postseason-high 12 assists. With Lillard and fellow guard CJ McCollum double-teamed off of pick-and-rolls, center Meyers Leonard was given open shots and converted them en route to a career-high 30 points, including five three-pointers and 12 rebounds.
Leonard’s 25 first-half points were not only the most he’d scored in seven NBA seasons but more than he’d ever scored even in college, and this from a player who was drafted 11th overall in 2012.
Leonard’s selection came six after Portland picked Lillard, but while the Oakland-born point guard has become adopted by the city for his game- and series-winning exploits, Leonard has been held at arm’s length. In the two seasons since signing a four-year contract worth $41 million, he averaged 5.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 12 minutes a game.
“I looked up and this dude got 25 points,” Lillard said. “I’ve never seen him have a moment like that. What better time.”
But neither Leonard nor Lillard could play hero in overtime. Lillard, who already had one walk-off shot under his belt this postseason, missed a three-pointer from the corner with 2.5 seconds remaining. It led to Golden State’s first overtime victory this season in seven chances.
“I thought it had a chance,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.
His team had multiple chances, but never took advantage in a way to extend the series, and Curry was again a roadblock. Other than ending his streak of 81 consecutive free throws made in the fourth quarter or overtime of a playoff game, he was magnificent in the close-out game. He averaged 36.5 points a game in the series and assisted on Green’s clutch fourth-quarter shot to extend the Warriors’ playoff winning streak against Portland to 10 games.
Green had 18 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists — his fourth playoff triple-double of this postseason.
“Five straight Finals hasn’t been done since the ’60s, since Bill Russell’s Celtics, and it hasn’t been done for a reason,” Kerr said. “It’s really, really difficult.”
Portland’s first appearance in a conference finals in 19 years was brief. And the Trail Blazers left the arena Monday ruing their missed opportunities to extend their stay a little longer.