May 15, 2019, 1:44 am
Ignore the slogan, merchandise, and promotional material. The Golden State Warriors can no longer rely on “Strength In Numbers,” especially without Kevin Durant. Their 116-94 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals suggests as much, too. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were the only Warriors to score more than 12 points, combining for more than half of their team’s total with 62 points between them.
Thompson was his normally stoic self, unbothered by a relatively slow start and the short-armed contests of Blazers guards en route to 26 points on 24 shots. Portland can live with that. What Terry Stotts and his staff must clean up before Thursday’s Game 2 is ball-screen defense on Curry that allowed him to get loose for 36 points and 9-of-15 three-point shooting.
It’s obviously no surprise that Enes Kanter was exploited by Golden State. What’s shocking is that his debilitating struggles on defense in Game 1 were more the result of scheme than any personal deficiencies. The same goes for Zach Collins, who coming into this series figured to play an even bigger role than he did against the Denver Nuggets due to his ability to move his feet on the perimeter.
Instead, the vast majority of the Blazers’ defensive issues on Tuesday night stemmed from the coaching staff’s vexing decision to employ its normal drop pick-and-roll defense against the best off-dribble shooter in the history of the sport.
That’s never going to work against Curry. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the possibility that goading he and Thompson, who mostly feasted on that pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off coverage from mid-range, into jumpers makes Golden State more one-dimensional, taking away the “beautiful game” actions that have been a hallmark of this team during the Kerr era.
One problem: Curry and Thompson are arguably the two greatest shooters of all time. They don’t need airspace to launch and splash jumpers from all over the floor, especially when being checked by the Blazers’ undersized guards. Curry treated Damian Lillard like a shooting rack on the occasions the latter got an effective contest, and the 6-foot-7 Thompson rarely notices the reach of smaller defenders.
But what makes Portland’s defensive approach all the more confusing is that the Warriors – again, with Durant out of the lineup – just don’t have the supporting scoring punch that makes ceding Curry and Thompson clean looks the lesser of two evils. If Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Kevon Looney, Shaun Livingston, and Alfonzo McKinnie are going to beat the Blazers, that’s just something Stotts needs to be resigned to living with.
Instead, by giving the Splash Brothers, especially Curry, ample room to operate, Golden State managed to get top-tier production from its star backcourt while also allowing role players to get comfortable offensively.
Needless to say, that’s not a winning formula, and it confounds that Portland’s staff apparently thought otherwise. To be fair, there’s some sense to simplifying Kanter’s job on defense; he’s a traffic cone outside the paint anyway. But treating Collins the same way? It’s something close to indefensible, and one the Blazers will almost surely abandon come Game 2.
They really have no other choice, particularly given the reality that they need to steal a game to have any chance of winning this series before Durant returns.
Unfortunately, making that change alone won’t be enough to ensure Portland is more competitive Thursday night. Lillard and C.J. McCollum combined for just 36 points on 31 shots in Game 1. The former committed seven turnovers, and the latter managed just a single assist.
Criticism is headed Lillard’s way especially, and maybe rightfully so. He’s one of the 10 best players in the world – those guys are supposed to create answers when they wouldn’t otherwise exist, and he failed to do so time and again on Tuesday. But like last year’s first-round sweep at hand of the New Orleans Pelicans, any judgements on the play of he and McCollum should still come in the context of how the opposition is defending Portland at large.
Several years ago, Golden State was the first team to make abandoning non-shooters popular. Everyone knew the two-time defending champions would leave Moe Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Evan Turner on the perimeter, committing extra help Lillard and McCollum’s direction even when they put two defenders on the Blazers’ star playmakers at the point of attack after hand-offs and ball screens.
But the Warriors took that gambit even one step further in Game 1, sometimes straying far away from members of Portland’s supporting cast when Lillard and McCollum simply caught beyond the arc without a two-man game coming.
Golden State can get away with things defensively other teams can’t due to their collective length, smarts, and communication. Draymond Green as the last line of defense between the ball and the rim is even better than Paul Millsap was a round earlier, and few are better at “zoning up” on two offensive players behind the action than Andre Iguodala – well, except Green. The Warriors’ defensive talent has been underrated dating back to the first season of this ongoing dynasty, and that remains the case.
Still, the Blazers should take a cue from their opponent defensively going forward by putting more pressure on ball screens, overloading the strong side of the floor, and running a second defender at Curry every now and then. Portland certainly doesn’t have Golden State’s defensive personnel, but in Harkless, Collins, Aminu, and Turner, possess several players with the requisite combination of size and anticipation to hold their own in a would-be losing numbers game near the rim.
The Blazers did make the Warriors pay many times in Game 1 for selling out to stop Lillard and McCollum, and even Kanter on the block. Golden State was extra aggressive trapping Lillard and McCollum on side hand-offs coming middle, at one point to an extent that allowed Lillard to put on the brakes, leaving Thompson and Green grasping at air several feet above Harkless as he handed the ball to Lillard for a wide open three.
It’s absolutely imperative that Portland take advantage of that overzealousness more often than not, and if there’s anything encouraging to be gleaned from Game 1, it’s that Harkless scored 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting while mostly mooching off the attention paid to his higher-scoring teammates.
Kanter is included in that group, as Golden State doubled him the majority of times he caught on the block with his back to the basket. He had three assists on Tuesday, all in the first half, and all courtesy of the Warriors sending an extra defender his way while failing to make the necessary defensive rotations from there.
Kanter, by the way, had just four points in Game 1, unable to make plays on the short roll, missing several bunnies after offensive rebounds, and even getting the ball stolen by Green and Andrew Bogut in the second half when Golden State opted against doubling him. Expect the Warriors to continue mixing up their strategy when Kanter catches in the post, but don’t be surprised if they let him go to work one-on-one against Bogut, Green, and maybe Looney given how comfortable Portland seemed at times playing off the double-team in Game 1.
Regardless, the Blazers won’t pull off the upset unless their reserve-heavy units consistently outplay the Warriors’. It didn’t happen on Tuesday night. Golden State won both stints at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters when Thompson was on the floor without Curry and Green. Some of that can be explained by multiple made threes from the likes of Quinn Cook and Jonas Jerebko, but the bigger problem is that Portland’s bench units just weren’t able to produce enough offense.
If the Blazers want a chance in this series, they must win those minutes – it’s that simple.
Less elementary to come by are any changes the Blazers can make that could help solve the problems that plagued them in Game 1.
Aminu played just 19 minutes, and wasn’t the primary defender on Curry or Thompson when he was on the floor. If Stotts senses the need for major tweaks, the easiest one might be replacing Aminu in the starting lineup with Turner. The Warriors will leave him away from the ball just like they do Aminu, but he’s far better creating something out of nothing, and more importantly, allows Lillard and McCollum to play more off the ball, where it’s harder for help defenders to track them.
Dusting off Jake Layman, whether he starts for Aminu or comes off the bench, would likely create more space for Lillard and McCollum to attack, though Golden State would surely make him prove it before paying him attention away from the ball.
Starting Rodney Hood in Aminu’s place would lead to a similar advantage, though it bears wondering if he’s better left coming off the bench. He had 17 points on 4-of-8 shooting on Tuesday, overpowering defenders much in the way he did against Denver. P
ortland is probably asking too much of him defensively, though. Curry isn’t Jamal Murray, and Thompson isn’t Gary Harris. Hood’s length is an asset defensively no matter what perimeter player he’s guarding, but he’s overstretched chasing either of the Warriors’ stars across the floor. Of course, so are Lillard, McCollum, and Seth Curry. The only defenders who seemed to occasionally aggravate Curry and Thompson were Harkless, and to a less frequent measure, Turner.
A more radical curveball? Giving the lion’s share of center minutes to Collins. Doing so only makes sense under the assumption that the Blazers change their pick-and-roll defense to have the interior helper come “up to touch,” to the level of the screener, or even higher. Collins is fleet footed enough to cut off Curry in that scenario, then recover back to the paint in time to muck up the resulting action. There’s a trade-off in terms of offensive rebounding there, though, and it might not be one Portland can withstand – especially if Collins isn’t knocking down threes and the Warriors are welcoming him to take them, like in Game 1.
Hope isn’t lost. The Blazers just need to take one of these first two games at Oracle Arena, and they were within striking distance, somehow, as deep into this game as late in the third quarter. But Game 1 told us what pretty much everyone knew coming into the Western Conference Finals: Golden State is a decided favorite, with or without the player who many believe is the best in the world.
February 23, 2020, 2:00 pmDragan BenderPF, Golden State Warriors
Dragan Bender is available to make his Warriors debut on Sunday vs. the Pelicans.
Bender officially signed with the Warriors and he's looking to suit up tonight against the Pelicans. He's still not worth owning anywhere and this whole Warriors team is a dumpster-fire this year.
Source: Anthony Slater on Twitter
February 23, 2020, 1:28 pmMarkelle FultzPG, Orlando Magic
Markelle Fultz (cramp in left calf) has been fully cleared for Monday's game vs. the Nets.
Fultz dropped one of his best games of the season on the Nets back in early January when he had 25 points. He's been a top-110 guy over the past month and is well worth owning everywhere.
Source: John Denton on Twitter
February 23, 2020, 1:20 pmElfrid PaytonPG, New York Knicks
Elfrid Payton (sore right ankle) is being listed as questionable vs. the Rockets on Monday.
This ankle has been bothering him for the past couple of games and it caused him to completely miss Friday's matchup vs. the Pacers. Stay tuned for updates closer to tip-off.
Source: NY Knicks PR on Twitter
February 23, 2020, 1:18 pmFrank NtilikinaPG, New York Knicks
Frank Ntilikina (sore groin) is being listed as questionable for Monday's game vs. the Rockets.
Payton was dealing with a sore right ankle which caused him to miss practice on Saturday and now his groin is also bothering him. Stay tuned for updates closer to tip-off but if he does suit up he'll be worth playing seeing as he's been an upper mid-round guy as of late.
Source: NY Knicks PR on Twitter
February 23, 2020, 1:13 pmMitchell RobinsonC, New York Knicks
Mitchell Robinson (sprained left ankle) is being considered probable coming into Monday's game vs. the Rockets.
He didn't practice on Saturday so it's good to see that he's made enough progress to play just two days later. Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis will take the biggest dip in minutes with Robinson returning.
Source: NY Knicks PR on Twitter
February 23, 2020, 11:45 amBen SimmonsPG, Philadelphia Sixers
Ben Simmons is scheduled for an MRI on his back after leaving Saturday's game.
Simmons lasted just five minutes in Saturday's game after missing Thursday's contest, and was reportedly emotional after leaving the X-ray room in Milwaukee. The Sixers have some level of concern over this problem, but fantasy GMs will just have to sit tight and hope for the best. Alec Burks, Furkan Korkmaz and Raul Neto are the most likely beneficiaries if Simmons has to miss time but we'll cross that bridge when we get there.
February 23, 2020, 3:34 amRobin LopezC, Milwaukee Bucks
Robin Lopez made a splash off the bench for the Bucks on Saturday, chipping in 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including two 3s, plus one assist and one block.
Lopez has not made any significant impact in fantasy prior to this solid outing, so he can be left on the worse for now.
February 23, 2020, 3:24 amEric BledsoePG, Milwaukee Bucks
Eric Bledsoe had a productive outing in Saturday’s win over the Sixers with 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting, adding eight assists, two treys and four rebounds.
Bledsoe has been looking good as of late, having stabilized with reliable value. The Bucks are in cruise control right now and Bledsoe owners can confidently keep him slotted into their active lineups in all formats.
February 23, 2020, 3:13 amGiannis AntetokounmpoPF, Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo went HAM on the Sixers on Saturday to lead the Bucks to a 119-98 victory over the Sixers with 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting, adding 17 rebounds, eight assists, two 3s and one block.
For whatever reason, Giannis loves stomping on the Sixers and gaudy lines like this have been the norm. This a top-end line from him, but we’re sure no one’s gonna complain outside of Sixers fans.
February 23, 2020, 3:04 amShake MiltonSG, Philadelphia Sixers
Shake Milton saw some extra run on Saturday with Ben Simmons going down, erupting for 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting, including five triples and two assists.
It was a one-dimensional game from Milton but it was good enough for boost in points, threes and FG tonight. Keep an eye on him as a potential add if Simmons misses multiple games.