- Even when it seemed the Blazers made all the right moves, it amounted to nothing. Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and the battle-tested Warriors had all the answers.
PORTLAND –– There are only so many moves a team can make without losing itself, and even fewer in a playoff series against the Warriors. Playing too big or too small tends to only leave a team more vulnerable to Golden State’s swirling offense. Making too many lineup changes risk shaking players from what is most familiar, and therefore most comfortable. Only some teams are even able to coherently toggle between different coverages on the fly, though always at some cost. A team’s second or third choice in the scheme will never fit quite as naturally as its first.
The Trail Blazers, in their mounting desperation, have bumped against each of these constraints. And like so many teams before them, they have found a certain futility in the struggle—the cold realization that even making all the right moves could amount to nothing. Portland is running a more tailored rotation, guarding differently, and attempting to reshape its offense to fit the circumstances. None of it meant a damn thing. A masterful first half from the Blazers did nothing to save them from a Warriors team that has all the answers.
“There’s no panic,” Stephen Curry said of his team’s in-game process. After a 110-99 win gave Golden State a commanding 3-0 series lead, there’s no doubt, either. The Blazers were a long-shot to beat the Warriors from the start, but they may have lost the series when they played every card they had and came up short regardless. Every time the Blazers implemented some clever tweak to who or how they were playing, the Warriors observed the change, processed it, and then rendered it irrelevant. Given enough time, Golden State was able to nullify every move and run Portland could make.
“It’s such a long game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s the thing you learn when you’ve been in the NBA for a while. There’s time for so many swings in the game itself.” The Blazers did all they could to keep swinging back. Eventually, they hit a creative wall—the same one that has brought the end to so many Warriors opponents who ran out of adjustments or even viable players. The problem isn’t simply that the Warriors are more talented than any opponent they come across. It’s that their specific kind of talent allows them to outlast their challengers in a seven-game format. Every game asks something slightly different of Golden State, and yet in the vast majority it finds some means to respond.
“You don’t win without that competitiveness and that killer instinct and just finding different ways to win games in different styles,” Curry said. For this version of the Warriors, that often means channeling the offense through Draymond Green. Any attempt to pressure Curry or Klay Thompson only allows Green, one of the savviest decision-makers in the league, to work over a leveraged defense. “Draymond is a guy who catches the ball in the middle,” CJ McCollum said. “So he’s making a decision on whether to shoot it, drive it at the help and throw the lob, or to hit the corner. And a lot of times tonight, he was just pushing the ball and then getting contact and finishing around the basket.”
Without Green, the Warriors might look a bit like the Blazers—a team with two talented scorers in the backcourt and little means to relieve them from traps and double teams. Damian Lillard, who is reportedly playing through a rib injury in this series, has had difficulties reconciling his goals with the Warrior defense. If Lillard uses any kind of ball screen, he’s pressured until he gives it up. Find the open man is a practical choice. Unfortunately, it also plays into the value proposition of Golden State’s entire defense—the idea that Portland’s role players won’t be able to make enough plays to win.
“I think what they want me to do is make the correct play,” Lillard said. “And for me, I try to do that for as long as possible.” What is Lillard to do? Giving up the ball concedes shots for the Blazers’ most capable scorer, but taking those shots against double and triple teams is brutally ineffective. “I tried to force the action,” Lillard said. “Both guys [are] staying with me and then Draymond is lurking behind them. You know, you go up against a wall of defense, sometimes it’s three defenders. It’s tough because you’re not always going to get a quality look, and then when you do get a quality look and don’t make it, that just kind of makes it worse.” Three games in, Lillard is shooting 32.6% from the field against the Warriors and turning the ball over 4.7 times a night.
Starting Meyers Leonard, a functional stretch five, was an attempt to give Lillard and McCollum the outlet they needed. “Obviously it’s designed to help our offense a little bit,” Stotts said of the change. It worked until it didn’t. Leonard scored 13 points in the first half but only two in the second. In those final 24 minutes, the Warriors outscored the Blazers 57-33. Even strategies that seem to work against the Warriors eventually give way in the end.
Portland is well on its way to losing this series, but not without doing all it can within the limits of its roster to fight for every point it can. Leonard not only started but played 31 minutes to prevent the fallout from playing Enes Kanter opposite Curry. Then, when Kanter did play, he was able to bully Jordan Bell to make a considerable impact in a limited time. The space-invading combination of Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless was almost abandoned entirely. Against a defense with Golden State’s collective intelligence, playing two shaky shooters and shakier ball-handlers risks sinking the offense completely. So Aminu became little more than a ceremonial starter in Game 3, playing short stints at the start of each half for 13 minutes in total. Stotts also saw to it that Lillard and McCollum played more of their minutes together on Saturday, presumably in the hope that the two creators could assist one another. If a spot-up big like Leonard couldn’t give Portland’s offense the breathing room it needed, perhaps another high-level playmaker might.
“They made some nice adjustments,” Kerr said. On this stage and against this opponent, nice just isn’t nearly enough.