The Portland Trail Blazers couldn’t shoot in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, nor close out Game 2, but two hours before Game 3, their most important home game in nearly two decades, their coach felt confident in what he would receive from his roster.
“There’s not going to be a letdown,” Portland’s Terry Stotts said, and his statement was based on experience.
These were the Trail Blazers that bounced back from an embarrassing first-round playoff sweep last year to win 53 games. That lost center Jusuf Nurkic to a broken leg three weeks before the end of the regular season yet won two playoff series, anyway. That faced elimination in the second round, only to win two games, including a Game 7 on the road, to advance to the franchise’s first West finals in 19 years.
Up to this point, the Trail Blazers have been the NBA’s most indefatigable team.
Yet following Saturday night, they might be the next to be eliminated.
Portland’s 18-point second-half lead evaporated and their window of opportunity in their playoff series against top-seeded Golden State has been nearly closed following the Warriors’ 110-99 victory at Moda Center.
Golden State leads the series 3-0. The Warriors have overcome deficits of 17 and 18 points to win the last two games and Portland’s tireless push appears to have led to dead legs.
The Warriors “have played in a lot of big games and we’ve been down in many games by pretty big margins,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “Our guys know we have an excellent defensive team and have some explosive scorers.”
Including Stephen Curry, who scored 36 points. But most importantly in Game 3 they had Draymond Green, who made every play in sparking a comeback.
“He was like a wrecking ball out there,” Kerr said. “Destroying everything in his path.”
Green scored 20 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and had 12 assists and affected the game in ways that went beyond the box score. When young Warriors center Jordan Bell clanged a transition dunk off the rim, Green locked eyes with him during the next dead ball and directed him to shake it off. It was an apt display on a night when the Warriors, led by Green, essentially shrugged off a poor start and finished on a tear.
The only time Green erred came 25 minutes after the final buzzer, when he sat in front of a microphone at the postgame dais only to have ear-splitting feedback fill the interview room.
“Obviously I’m one of the leaders on the team,” Green said. “My teammates always tell me we follow your body language. … We came out swinging in the third quarter and it changed the game.”
Just as Bell followed his mistake by catching a pass in the open court minutes later and slamming a dunk with two hands, the Warriors made up for their early struggles. They held the Trail Blazers to 33 second-half points and locked up Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
“If we’re going to beat them,” Lillard said, “I’m going to have to be rolling.”
That star backcourt, which has produced signature moments this postseason, made seven of 23 field goal attempts after halftime. McCollum scored a team-high 23 points, and Lillard had 19 on 18 shots.
“I don’t necessarily think he’s fatigued,” Green said of Lillard. “We’re just throwing multiple bodies at him.”
Blazers center Meyers Leonard, given a start at center, provided a postseason-high 16 points, but contributions like his were few and far between after halftime.
“Our offense fell apart,” Stotts said.
It spoiled a night primed for a celebration.
The last time the Trail Blazers hosted a game in the Western Conference finals, it was June 2, 2000 and Scottie Pippen scored nine points and grabbed six rebounds. Klay Thompson was a 10-year-old living in Lake Oswego, a Portland suburb. When the West finals returned Saturday, 19 years later, Pippen was sitting on the Moda Center baseline working as an ESPN pregame analyst and Thompson, a Golden State guard, turned his interception of a lazy transition pass into a layup to cut a nine-point Blazers lead to seven midway through the first quarter.
He finished with 19 points, five rebounds and five assists. But Saturday belonged to Green.
“His stat line,” Thompson said, “was ridiculous.”