January 20, 2019

Playing with a large, early lead against any NBA team is dangerous. Against the defending champion, 73-win Golden State Warriors it must feel like a trap. Playing out in front of the Warriors is akin to sitting in Ichabod Crane’s saddle, all the while hearing the furious gallop of the approaching hooves behind, the red-eyed steed of your pursuer breathing down your neck.

The Portland Trail Blazers put together a nearly ideal first quarter in Game 2 of their Western Conference Semifinal series against the Warriors. While the champs are known for their depth, even without reigning MVP Steph Curry, it was the Blazers who had the full complement of contributions early. Seven Blazers scored in the first quarter, led by Al-Farouq Aminu’s 10 points and nine from C.J. McCollum.

The Blazers scrambled defensively and the Warriors were chilly, a strange state for them. In the first 12 minutes Golden State made just 10-of-26 attempts. Portland was able to take advantage of many of those misses to play downhill and in space on the offensive end.

They played loose and when transition opportunities weren’t available they attacked off of simple picks. By the time the first quarter drew to a close the Blazers had scored three layups, three dunks, four threes, and owned a 34-21 advantage.

Through several Warrior runs the young Blazers persevered. They hit a cold spell in the heart of the second quarter, going without a field goal for nearly five and a half minutes. Over that span the Warriors cut a 17-point deficit to just three. But the Blazers responded with back-to-back threes from Aminu and Damian Lillard and took an eight-point lead to the locker room. The Warriors again cut the difference to three just two minutes after play resumed, but that’s when Lillard began to cook. Throughout the quarter he came off of a series of high picks from which he could either directly pull up or shift into a patented step back.

Lillard closed the third quarter with 17 points in the frame (25 in all), including a buzzer-beating three in the final moments. The Blazers looked to be in good shape, heading into the fourth quarter with an 87-76 lead.

But the fourth quarter belonged to the champs. To start, Festus Ezeli scored all eight of his points in a three-minute flurry.

After a pair of free throws from Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson tied the game at 91 with a three. It was the first tie since 3-3 way back at the 10:57 mark of the first quarter.

Even as Golden State’s vaunted offense began to make mincemeat of the Blazers’ defense, it was their defense that really cracked down. The Warriors blitzed Portland’s star guards, funneling the ball to Mason Plumlee and forcing him to make plays.

The young big man struggled to make any. In nearly seven minutes of fourth quarter action he went 0-of-3 with two fouls, two turnovers (one of which was an offensive foul), and had two of his shot attempts blocked.

Lillard went scoreless in the fourth. McCollum scored six points—just four before the final 10 seconds, at which point the game had already been decided.

By the end of a fourth quarter that saw the Warriors outscore the Blazers 34-12 there were flaming particles of smashed pumpkin everywhere, all that remained of Portland’s valiant attempt to steal a road victory in Oracle. Thompson led all scorers with 27 points and Green put up 17 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and blocked four shots as the Warriors pulled to a 2-0 series lead with a final margin of 110-99.

The Blazers deserve credit. Young teams aren’t supposed to handle adversity with poise, just as teams who lose four starters aren’t supposed to make the playoffs, but these Blazers have defied convention all year. For three quarters they answered every blow the defending champs struck in one of the toughest environments in basketball. The moment was not too much for them. The Warriors were.

“Obviously, Golden State is a different monster,” Lillard remarked after the game.

The series shifts to Portland Saturday. There the Blazers boast their own inhospitable environment as a raucous crowd waits to have their say, and the home team will get at least two chances to show just how little they care for the expectations of others—or fear monsters, for that matter.

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