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.
October 22, 2019, 7:23 pmCameron JohnsonSF, Phoenix Suns
Cameron Johnson (left calf soreness) and Ty Jerome (right ankle sprain) have been downgraded to out for Wednesday's game against the Kings.
The Suns' crop of backup point guards are looking at a few extra minutes each with Jerome out, though it's still too crowded to rely on anyone. Mikal Bridges is in line to see a heavier workload at both wing spots without the services of Johnson.
Source: Gina Mizell on Twitter
October 22, 2019, 6:23 pmShaquille HarrisonPG, Chicago Bulls
Shaquille Harrison (hamstring) has been downgraded to out for Wednesday's game against the Hornets.
This is not a good sign for Harrison's chances of playing in the season opener. Harrison is off the fantasy radar as a deep reserve, even if he suits up.
Source: NBA Injury Report
October 22, 2019, 6:03 pmFred VanVleetPG, Toronto Raptors
Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby will join Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol in the starting unit for Tuesday's season-opening game against the Pelicans.
VanVleet, who was in line for mnites either way, gets a boost in value now that he's the confirmed starter for the Raptors. Norman Powell could still push for 20+ minutes as the first guard/wing off the bench.
Source: Ryan Wolstat on Twitter
October 22, 2019, 5:56 pmAndre IguodalaSF, Memphis Grizzlies
Andre Iguodala remains away from the team and will not play in Wednesday's season opener.
The Grizzlies remain steadfast in their desire to trade Iguodala rather than buy him out. This saga may drag out to the trade deadline. Iguodala can be left on the waiver wire while this situation plays itself out.
Source: NBA Injury report
October 22, 2019, 5:45 pmWendell Carter Jr.PF, Chicago Bulls
Wendell Carter Jr. is being listed as probable for Wednesday's matchup against the Hornets.
Carter is ready to roll for the season opener and has the potential for a big season if he can stay healthy. That has proven to be a big if so far in his young career.
Source: NBA Injury Report
October 22, 2019, 5:42 pmAndre RobersonSG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Andre Roberson (left knee) is listed as out for Wednesday's game against the Jazz.
Roberson has been ramping up his workload recently and is getting closer to a return, but it won't come in the opener. Roberson is a plus defender but can be left on the waiver wire.
Source: NBA Injury Report
October 22, 2019, 5:38 pmNassir LittleSF, Portland Trail Blazers
Nassir Little (left ankle sprain) is available to play in Wednesday's tilt against the Nuggets.
Little doesn't hold much value as he battles for backup minutes with a host of players.
Source: Jay Allen on Twitter
October 22, 2019, 5:35 pmHassan WhitesideC, Portland Trail Blazers
Hassan Whiteside (left ankle sprain) is good to go for Wednesday's game against the Nuggets.
Whiteside practiced without limitations on Monday, and now we have official confirmation that he will play. Whiteside has proven to be elite in rebounds, blocks, and field goal percentage in limited minutes, and has the potential for a career-year with the shortage of options in the Blazers frontcourt.
Source: Jay Allen on Twitter
October 22, 2019, 4:59 pmReggie JacksonPG, Detroit Pistons
Reggie Jackson (lower back tightness) is listed as probable to face the Pacers on Wednesday.
Although the team added a few guards and Jackson is about as dull as they come, he is the starting PG for a fringe playoff team who is a reliable source for points and assists, while quietly nearly doubling his career average from the three-point range last year.
Source: Eric Woody on Twitter
October 22, 2019, 4:51 pmMarkieff MorrisPF, Detroit Pistons
Markieff Morris (sore lower back) is being listed as questionable to play in Wednesday's game against the Pacers.
The Pistons have a back-to-back set to open the season and are already going to be without Blake Griffin for the rest of October, so they need Morris in the lineup. Is Morris can't go, Christain Wood is going to be a hot cheap DFS play to open the season after earning a roster spot by averaging 13.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in five preseason games.
Source: Eric Woody on Twitter