Get all of Ben Golliver’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
PORTLAND — Before they were champions, the Warriors had to climb the rungs of postseason success, getting out-executed by the 2013 Spurs and outlasted by the 2014 Clippers. Those losses, combined with the breezy run to the 2015 title, give Golden State a full perspective on its playoff opponents: they’ve seen it all, losing to Hall of Famers and beating Hall of Famers, tasting bitter defeat and sweet champagne.
And what does Draymond Green see in the Blazers following the Warriors’ 120–108 Game 3 loss at the Moda Center on Saturday? An opponent that is out of its depth, that doesn’t have the requisite self-belief, and that’s led by an All-NBA guard who can be limited late in games if he’s simply made to work defensively.
In short, Green sees Portland as a little brother, an opponent so beatable that the All-Star forward didn’t hesitate in predicting a Game 4 victory.
“We’ll be better there [on defense],” Green promised. “I’ll be better. We’ll win.”
The bold, candid and fierce talk came on a night when the Warriors lost their defensive intensity for the first time in the postseason. Portland’s 120 points were easily the most Golden State has conceded in the playoffs, and Damian Lillard’s 40-point explosion was the biggest by a Warriors opponent in the playoffs since LeBron James in last year’s Finals.
It was Kobe Bryant, five-time champion, who told reporters in March that it was Green’s job to “create conflict [and] tension” in Golden State’s locker room to prevent against “lax” attitudes. Right on cue, Green’s response to the Warriors’ punchless play was to throw punches at the podium.
“That [Blazers] team had doubt,” Green said. “You could just tell they were unsure about everything they were doing in the first quarter … In the first quarter, they felt like they were on the ropes and we didn’t take advantage of that. Now, they’re feeling like they can do it. And we know otherwise.”
Portland still has a long way to go to spring what would be a shocking upset. Their series deficit is still 2–1, Golden State still holds a strong home-court advantage and Stephen Curry took another step toward returning to the court from a knee sprain by participating in a pregame two-on-two session.
But the Blazers posed problems inside and outside for the Warriors, whose ability to crank up their defensive intensity at will was decisive in Games 1 and 2. On Saturday, Golden State conceded 17 three-pointers, many of them wide open, marking the third time this season that Portland has really gotten loose from deep against them. At the same time, the Warriors’ big advantage on the glass earlier in the series all but disappeared with the Blazers’ small and anonymous frontline playing their counterparts to a draw.
With fewer defensive stops, there were also fewer opportunities to run, and the Warriors managed just two fast-break points, never quite demonstrating their signature electricity.
“We couldn’t get a loose ball or a rebound to save our lives,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I didn’t feel like we played with the desperation that’s necessary to win a playoff game.”
In truth, if not for a career-high 37 points and eight three-pointers from Green, the Warriors were at risk of being run off the court. Building on their progress in Game 2, the Blazers found ways to free their starting guards from the Warriors’ perimeter defense while moving the ball well to beat unusually slow and sloppy rotations. Logging extended minutes in the do-or-die game, Lillard hit eight threes en route to his playoff career-high 40 points while CJ McCollum added 22 points of his own. Al-Farouq Aminu, a complementary option and often-erratic shooter, finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
Green was less than impressed, brushing off Portland’s achievements and heaping the responsibility on his own shoulders.
“If we make them work on the defensive end, Dame [Lillard] ain’t hitting those shots in the fourth quarter,” Green said. “You saw that in Game 2. But he had to work. Tonight was kind of easy on him. We’ve got to make him work on the defensive end so all those shots he’s hitting aren’t going.”
He went on to call his performance “awful” and “horrendous” defensively, noting that he failed to close out on Aminu’s jumpers and allowed Portland’s starting forward to drive to the hoop too easily.
“I think this was my worst game of the series,” Green said. "[I] had 37 [points], nine [rebounds], eight [assists], and two turnovers. All that’s cute. But I didn’t do what I do for this team. I didn’t lead my troops tonight.”
Although Green’s self-critique was unsparing, the Blazers clearly received his deepest cuts. Instead of waiting for the media to spend the next two days asking over and over again whether Curry will return, Green floated an alternate series of questions.
How confident, really, is Portland? Is Lillard capable of delivering another spectacular performance against an elite defense? Does the fate of this series belong solely to the 73-win Warriors?
Make no mistake, this poking and prodding was directed precisely at the center of Portland’s identity as a scrappy underdog with nothing to lose and Lillard’s identity as a steady and unshakeable scoring threat. In both cases, Green went for the throat.
With a ring on his finger and a roster surrounding him that is deeper and more talented than Portland’s, even without Curry, Green has every right to frame the matchup on his own certain, dismissive terms. Remarkably, the Warriors haven’t lost back-to-back games since Games 2 and 3 in last year’s Finals, giving Green every cause for confidence in his team’s ability to bounce back.
But the only way Green could have been clearer in provoking the Blazers would have been to preface his comments by saying, “I am about to deliver bulletin board material.” Now, Portland prepares to answers his questions and Golden State braces for the reaction, with the Game 4 pressure shifting from Curry’s knee to Green’s own shoulders.