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.
May 21, 2019, 12:02 amDamian Lillard - G - Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard had his best game this series in Monday's 117-119 Game 4 loss to the Warriors with 28 points and 12 assists to go with four rebounds and four 3-pointers.
Lillard went 11-for-24 from the field and hit a signature logo 3-pointer, but in the end he couldn't convert on his layup or his 3-pointer in OT to keep the Blazers' season alive. He's been playing through a rib injury which explains why he's been a bit off on offense. Tonight he brought it all in an attempt to survive, but it just wasn't enough against the juggernaut Warriors.
May 21, 2019, 12:00 amCJ McCollum - G - Trail Blazers
C.J. McCollum scored 26 points on 10-of-22 shooting with two rebounds, seven assists, a steal, two blocks and five 3-pointers in Monday's Game 4 against the Warriors.
McCollum has been the Blazers' most consistent threat on offense in this series, but he was unable to convert on some tough shots late in OT to keep the Blazers' season alive. He's improved upon last postseason, but this year ended the same as the Blazers were swept.
May 20, 2019, 11:59 pmMeyers Leonard - F/C - Trail Blazers
Meyers Leonard had a career-high 30 points on 12-of-16 shooting with 12 rebounds, three assists, a steal, a block and five 3-pointers in Monday’s Game 4 loss to the Warriors.
Leonard had 25 points in the first half thanks to his 5-for-6 shooting from deep and both of those numbers already set new career-highs. Thanks to his hot hand, the Warriors had to respect him out on the 3-point line which freed up space for Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum to operate on the perimeter.
May 20, 2019, 11:58 pmAl-Farouq Aminu - F - Trail Blazers
Al-Farouq Aminu scored zero points on 0-of-2 shooting with a rebound and a block in Monday's Game 4.
Aminu stunk it up again, but the Blazers didn't get much help from their bench either. Rodney Hood (40 minutes, seven points on 3-of-11 shooting with two rebounds, two assists, two steals and a 3-pointer) and Evan Turner (six points on 3-of-4 shooting with two rebounds and a steal) didn't do much, showing that coach Stotts didn't have many options to choose from.
May 20, 2019, 11:56 pmStephen Curry - G - Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry led the Warriors to a 119-117 OT Game 4 on Monday with 37 points on 11-of-25 shooting with 13 rebounds, 11 assists, a steal and seven 3-pointers.
Curry put on an off-ball clinic tonight, running circles around the Blazers to get open even though he drew consistent triple-teams. Steve Kerr wanted to end this series tonight so Curry played the entire second half including OT and the move paid off. There shouldn’t be any more noise about Curry’s ability to perform in the playoffs as he destroyed the Blazers in every coverage they threw at him. It’ll be all eyes on Curry again in the Finals as they look to three-peat.
May 20, 2019, 11:54 pmDraymond Green - F - Golden State Warriors
Draymond Green notched a 18-14-11 triple-double to go with three steals, two blocks and a 3-pointer in Monday’s Game 4 win over the Blazers.
Green has proven over the past two games that he still has the ability to kick it into high gear. His defensive tenacity and anticipation might be the best in the league as he’s a one-man wrecking crew on that end of the floor. His only triple was a big one late in OT and his ability to ignite the Warriors on a big run thanks to his defense and passing were huge reasons why the Warriors swept the Blazers.
May 20, 2019, 11:52 pmJordan Bell - F - Golden State Warriors
Jordan Bell started in Monday's Game 4 against the Blazers and scored seven points on 3-of-5 shooting with two assists and a steal.
Bell drew his first career playoff start after Damian Jones (DNP-CD) looked overwhelmed in his Game 3 start, but ceded the closing minutes to Kevon Looney (29 minutes, 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting with 14 rebounds, a steal and a block) who played the best out of all the Warriors' centers. Looney's timing and offensive rebounding have been huge for Golden State and his ability to switch on to perimeter players has also been a huge reason as to why he sees the floor more than the other bigs.
May 20, 2019, 11:52 pmKlay Thompson - G - Golden State Warriors
Klay Thompson struggled in Monday's Game 4 win over the Blazers with 17 points on 7-of-21 shooting with six rebounds, two assists, two steals, a block and three 3-pointers.
Thompson has been forced to put the ball on the floor more with the Warriors lacking playmakers and you can clearly see him out of his comfort zone. His defense was stifling tonight in crunch time as he perfectly contested both of Damian Lillard's shot attempts at the end of OT.
May 20, 2019, 11:49 pmAlfonzo McKinnie - F - Golden State Warriors
Alfonzo McKinnie started in Monday’s Game 4 win over the Blazers and scored 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting with two rebounds and a 3-pointer.
McKinnie drew the start in place of Andre Iguodala (calf strain) and had the worst plus-minus out of all the starters but came up with some big offensive rebounds in OT. He can’t space the floor any better than Shaun Livingston (22 minutes, eight points on 4-of-4 shooting with a rebound, an assist, a steal and a block) who plays much better with the Warriors’ starters so the starting job is just in name.
May 20, 2019, 9:02 pmJordan Bell - F - Golden State Warriors
Jordan Bell will start at center in Monday's Game 4 for the Warriors.
Bell has played between 11 and 15 minutes in the three conference finals games, and he's unlikely to play too much more than that tonight. Look for Kevon Looney to continue to get more minutes than Bell tonight.
Source: Anthony Slater on Twitter