OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors walked off the court at the half with slumped shoulders, staring at a 15-point deficit and disappointed in their failure to execute the defensive game plan at home in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.
The Portland Trail Blazers’ dynamic guard duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum had combined for 26 points on efficient 9-of-17 shooting despite facing repeated double teams, traps and hedges. The guards managed to strike quickly off screens and took advantage of the rare isolation opportunities provided.
Inside the Warriors’ locker room, coach Steve Kerr issued his pep talk, urging his team to focus on the task at hand. And annoyed with how their defense had just allowed 65 points, he had one question right before his team took the court to begin the second half: Do we want to continue blitzing Lillard and McCollum?
Draymond Green, a few members of the team told Yahoo Sports, promptly responded, “Absolutely. In fact, we should blitz harder.”
That subtle adjustment is how the Warriors overcame a 17-point third-quarter deficit to swipe a 114-111 victory Thursday night to go up 2-0 in the series. Lillard and McCollum ended the game with 45 points, but on 15-of-39 shooting.
“We stole that game,” Kerr said. “I thought they outplayed us for much of the night, the majority of the night, but we brought enough competitive fire in the second half to overcome their great play.”
Stephen Curry led all scorers with 37 points, and had eight rebounds and eight assists. Klay Thompson added 24 points.
Golden State even increased the pressure in the final two quarters.
When Lillard or McCollum had the ball, a double-team was always forthcoming. When either player called for a screen, a vicious trap materialized, forcing a pass to teammates who aren’t accustomed to playmaking in that situation.
At times, role players stepped up and hit big shots for Portland — Seth Curry scored 16 points and hit four 3-pointers; Rodney Hood added 12 points — but a lack of playmakers proved to be the Trail Blazers’ downfall.
To close the contest, Portland coach Terry Stotts deployed a seldom-used lineup of Lillard, McCollum, Curry, Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard. It was a last-ditch attempt at filling the court with shooters and a distributor in Turner. With the Blazers’ two best players being trapped up high, Turner served as the release valve on a halfcourt semi-break.
But it was more of a three-on-two break rather than a four-on-three that is standard when a team traps. If Lillard or McCollum were playing off the ball, the defender wouldn’t depart. Golden State was more than content to allow Turner, Curry and Leonard to attempt to rescue the offense.
Enes Kanter, because of his lack of mobility and shooting limitations, is becoming less of a factor in the series, playing 19 minutes Thursday night and scoring four points.
“I thought they were putting a lot of attention on the ball,” Lillard said. “I thought we got the ball where it needed to go and shots just didn’t fall down the stretch. When ours didn’t, they got out in transition and made shots. It went their way.”
The Warriors appear to have found a recipe for success.
“At the end of the day, Dame and CJ have proven over and over again that they can beat anybody,” Green told Yahoo Sports after recording 16 points, a game-high 10 rebounds, seven assists and a game-high five blocks. “And so at halftime, it’s like, ‘Hey, do we want to keep blitzing?’ And I said what I said. We know what Dame and CJ can do. And also in that first half, they were getting free. So I think when you look at the situation, it’s like, ‘Hey man, they’re beating the blitz.’ Well, we’re not aggressive enough on them, so let’s blitz harder.
“That’s just my mindset. We’ve got to stay aggressive on those two. As a coach, and rightfully so, you’re always looking to make an adjustment. The adjustment is usually to change whatever coverage you’re in. I think that’s where you need to have a player who’s a leader step up and say, ‘No, let’s do more of that,’ because it’s a more comforting feeling for a coach. And soon as I said that, Kerr said, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ But if you don’t step up and say that as a player, then we end up changing the coverage.”
The superhero performances of the Trail Blazers’ backcourt this postseason are obviously still fresh on the mind of the former Defensive Player of the Year.
Lillard’s 50-point assault, capped by a 37-foot series-ending three, against Oklahoma City in the opening round, and McCollum’s 37-point outburst that anchored a Game 7 win in Denver in the semifinals are two of the top playoff moments of 2019.
That’s why Green was so adamant in persuading Kerr that ramping up the pressure on Lillard and McCollum was the right move.
“We know how that story ends [if we give them one-on-one looks],” Green told Yahoo Sports. “That movie is going to end the same way it’s ended a million times. Whatever gives us the best chance to win, that’s what we’re going to do. And I think more aggression is what’s going to give us the best chance to win.”
Game 3 is Saturday in Portland. Lillard — an Oakland native who has been asked frequently about this being the Warriors’ final season in his hometown before they move to San Francisco — is planning on a return.
“I doubt this will be the last time [I play at Oracle],” Lillard said. “You know, we planning on being back here, so that’s it.”