To put it lightly, the Portland Trail Blazers first game in their return to the conference finals didn’t go well. You could point to their sloppy first game in the series against Denver that didn’t go well either, and say that turned out alright, and not worry about this one. Let me stop you right there, because Denver isn’t Golden State and they weren’t down their best player. Like any loss in any game, there are things they can build on, to go along with several adjustments that must be made if they want a different outcome in game two tonight.
The simple truth – if Portland has any desire to win this series, they absolutely cannot afford to head home down 2-0, which makes tonight’s game a must win game.
The biggest adjustment that needs to be made, is the team needs to find a way to give Steph Curry the same treatment the Warriors are giving Damian Lillard. And then CJ McCollum needs to step up and hit shots. We know CJ is capable of monster games, he was the savior of game seven at Denver after all. But Mr. McCollum’s shot wasn’t falling Tuesday, and that can’t be the case tonight since the safe bet is that Lillard will face multiple defenders on the bulk of the possessions.
To help reassure the Rip City faithful that there is still hope in this series, we asked Bryant Knox (BK) and Casey Mabbott (CM) to answer the five biggest questions looming over the Trail Blazers and what they can do to even the series tonight.
1. Damian Lillard was constantly harassed in game one, facing multiple defenders on most possessions. What can Terry Stotts do to help space the offense and get Lillard some open looks?
(BK) If he trusts Enes Kanter to make plays out of the elbow, you have yourself a nice little abort mission option if Lillard needs it out of a pick-and-roll or double-teamed iso setting. Aminu would be a good option there as well; although I’d rather see some Lillard-Evan Turner pick-and-rolls to let ET operate out of the midrange. You also need Lillard to start hitting some of the deep shots you know he won’t stop taking. That alone will account for at least six points per game, and then from there it’s about getting CJ going on the other side of the court. As hot as McCollum can get (See: Game 7 vs. Denver), I can’t picture Steve Kerr sending the same defense his way that he’s already using to target Lillard. And if he does, you go right back to Dame. The problem when these teams played two years ago was a lack of secondary playmaking. Portland has that plus some this year, so it needs to take advantage.
(CM) When you watch Golden State’s offense at work, it is a thing of beauty, it’s like a machine. Their simplest but most effective play is to have one of the guards bring the ball up, pass to a forward on the wing, that forward passes to the player in the post, the post player passes back out to the forward on the wing, they pass to the player on the block, meanwhile both guards run in motion until someone gets open, the guards even run screens for each other to keep the front court players in range to shoot or rebound. Eventually someone is wide open, and the open man takes the shot. It’s a thing of beauty, and it happens so fast that no team seems able to stop it long term. It is like watching a wide receiver run routes on Sundays, that’s how good the Golden State guards are at getting open. They don’t just pass until someone is open, they run until someone is open. Portland has great shooters, they need to find creative ways to throw them open, and if that means extra passes and running, so be it. Three guys standing around and waiting for the defense to bite on one of the guards doing the dribble drive is not going to get it done. That’s not efficient, that’s showing your hand that you have two scorers and three liabilities. If you don’t trust your guys to get involved, why should the defense?
2. The Splash Bros were in fine form in game one, while Portland’s backcourt duo struggled to make shots. Can Lillard and McCollum match them shot for shot given the defensive pressure they are facing?
(BK) I don’t recommend trying. Since sending OKC off in walk-off fashion, Lillard is just 40 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from deep. The problem, though, isn’t so much Lillard’s current streak as much as it’s Golden State’s swarming defense. If you have open looks in transition, the Blazers shouldn’t hesitate. And if Lillard and McCollum feel they have space from behind the arc coming off curls or screens, by all means. But if you get behind or go into a game and think that you need to beat the Splash Bros at their own style, you’re going to be in trouble from the start. This should be about locking down as much as possible and then running your regular offense on every single possession no matter the score in the moment.
(CM) Golden State isn’t going to back down on either end, so instead of holding out hope that the Warriors suddenly forget to guard Lillard or McCollum, they need to apply the same pressure and make the Warriors change up their game plan. They need to make sure Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have a man assigned to them no matter what, and that guy has to stay with their man no matter what. It’s inexcusable for either player to be left open on a given play no matter how much passing and motion is going on. On defense, the Warriors are sending help defenders that are coming away from one of Portland’s less talented shooters, which means the Warriors think they always have an expendable defender and do not trust Portland’s front court to make shots. So far, they are absolutely correct, which is why Portland needs to find ways to get those guys involved so they are already in a rhythm when they get called on, and not under pressure to make their first shot attempt in 20 minutes. Then you can use the same defensive game plan and send help defenders coming away from the front court, and we know they will not make every shot they are given either. Dame and CJ can absolutely match the Splash Bros shot for shot, but only if they are giving pressure as much as they are getting pressured.
3. Steph Curry was on fire from all over the court, but especially from downtown. How can Portland keep his scoring output at an acceptable level?
(BK) Lillard spoke postgame about “poor execution.” He commented that as a team, they chose to have their bigs sit back too far when they knew they were playing a squad that won’t shoot mid-range jumpers (especially with Durant out again for Game 2). To me, that’s not poor execution—it’s poor game-planning. Portland, in conjunction with using its bigs in a more productive manner, needs to plan on running guys off the perimeter. That starts with fighting through screens if you’re Lillard and McCollum. Staying with your man and playing physically off the ball become two huge priorities, and that’s doubly true for Lillard who is in charge of containing the master of the relocation three.
(CM) The only way – pressure defense and forcing the ball out of his hands. Put a rotation of Moe Harkless, Evan Turner, and Rodney Hood on Curry, throw multiple bodies with fresh legs at him. He likes to run, and he counts on his primary defender running out of gas, so make sure you always have fresh legs chasing him. That will also allow Lillard to guard someone that doesn’t move or shoot as much, and allow him to save his energy for getting open on offense. It’s basically the same way Golden State is challenging Lillard, might as well make his counterpart work just as hard as he is.
4. With Golden State down Kevin Durant, the expectation was that Portland would keep game one close or win. How does their sloppy performance impact your confidence in their ability to compete in this series?
(BK) Truth be told, I kind of expected the Blazers would be down between 8-11 points for much of the game. What I didn’t expect is that the 8-11 point difference would feel like 18-21 the entire time. Portland just couldn’t ever take back momentum—not for more than a minute or two. I do think the Blazers can play a much better game, and I think they will, making this one closer in the end. But it’s concerning that a single-digit game for a good part of the way never truly felt within reach. Portland really needs to see Lillard catch fire soon in this series just to put the threat of a big run back on the table.
(CM) I don’t know that it was as sloppy as some are saying. Portland got to the line more and hauled in more rebounds than Golden State, but shot poorly from the field, especially from long range. They also committed a lot of turnovers, which one could chalk up to big game nerves. If they can clean up the shot selection by being more patient and creative, and continue to hold their own on rebounds and getting to the line, this series can go their way. Durant’s potential return throws a wrench in those plans as he personally impacts all of those categories, (yes, including nerves) but until he is seen on the court, we’ll only worry about the players in uniform. As of right now, Durant is unlikely to suit up, so Portland should take advantage of the power play without him on the court, earn the two game split, and head home to a five game series and the chance to steal home court advantage.
5. If Portland wins tonight, A) how do they pull it off, and B) which players help lead the charge alongside Lillard and McCollum?
(BK) I know I just said the Blazers need Lillard to catch fire soon, but while I think that’s what it takes to keep the Warriors’ defense honest, it’s not the end all be all of a Rip City victory. If Portland wins, it’s because it got big time performances from both Enes Kanter and either Seth Curry or more likely Rodney Hood. The only way the Blazers get them going is if the team controls the pace. Letting Curry or Thompson launch transition threes will get the team into a hole, so preventing that allows you to run your sets and get your X-factors involved in an efficient way.
(CM) Tonight’s game better look an awful lot like game two against Denver. Portland played a very physical and high pressure brand of basketball, contested every shot, ran step for step with their shooters, and threw a variety of looks and bodies at their best players in an effort to harass and overwhelm them. It worked, and Portland went home tied 1-1 and knowing they had the physicality to push back and make a statement on the road. That’s what it is going to take tonight, that’s what the Warriors did to Portland in game one, and Portland needs to take that same game plan and shove it back in their faces. They’ll need heroic performances from Enes Kanter, Zach Collins, Rodney Hood, and most of all, Seth Curry. We might even get a Meyers Leonard sighting to help get Draymond Green fired up and going the wrong way. We need Steph Curry’s little brother to get under his skin, and show him up in front of his parents, the home crowd, and the national tv audience. If this series is going to change in Portland’s favor, they need the supporting cast to step up big time, plain and simple. Also, the coaching staff needs to get back to the drawing board and make some creative changes that showcase all of their player’s strengths, and hide their weaknesses. This team was built to beat Golden State at their own system, now they need to prove they can when absolutely everything is on the line. No matter what, you just cannot go down 2-0 against a team that hasn’t lost a playoff series to a western conference opponent since the spring of 2014.