After one of the greatest playoff rounds in recent memory, and likely the most entertaining second round of all time capped off by Kawhi Leonard’s multiple-bounce series winner, it was going to be hard for the conference finals to live up to that level of drama.
Game 1 of Golden State-Portland was a bad start, as the Warriors won comfortably, 116-94. The game might have been even worse than expected, as neither team brought the requisite energy of an NBA final four bout. Truthfully, the Draft Lottery before the game was far more compelling than anything that came during the contest.
On the one hand, it really isn’t fair for the Trail Blazers, fresh off a dramatic Game 7 win of their own against the Denver Nuggets, to be expected to compete against Warriors. Portland and Golden State have faced off in the playoffs twice during this era of Warriors hegemony, and the only game the Blazers won came with Steph Curry inactive back in 2016.
With Jusuf Nurkic out and Enes Kanter manning the middle, Portland has very little chance of effectively containing Golden State on defense, which doesn’t come as a surprise. Kanter also played the Warriors in the playoffs as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016. He was riding high after being an integral part of the Thunder’s upset over the 67-win Spurs in the previous round, but was played off the court by Curry and Klay Thompson in the conference finals. A similar scenario is playing out this year.
The Blazers use a drop coverage that keeps their bigs back to protect the paint on pick-and-rolls. That’s death against Curry, who feasted for nine threes Tuesday, seven of which were classified as uncontested. Personnel limitations or not, there has to be a more reasonable defensive scheme, like hedging, that prevents the greatest shooter of all-time from getting loose seven times in one game, especially when that game features garbage time.
Again, it’s not really Portland’s fault that their roster forces them into coverages that Golden State has been dealing with throughout the regular season. No one’s asking them to be the Rockets. But even the Clippers managed to confuse the Warriors during their first-round series, using a top-blocking strategy that created some additional turnovers and frustrated Kevin Durant into delivering his now famous line, “I’m Kevin Durant, you know who I am.”
With the way the Blazers were playing, Golden State was able to treat this game with the intensity of a regular-season contest, not a playoff a game, and certainly not a conference finals showdown. The contrast between this game and the previous series could not have been clearer for the Warriors.
Against Houston, Golden State was barely able to find seven rotation players Steve Kerr trusted once Durant went down. Andre Iguodala had to play 38 minutes in the closeout game, and Thompson played 40 after the pair averaged 23 and 34 minutes, respectively, during the regular season. In Game 1, Kerr had no such urgency with his lineups, opting for Quinn Cook/Thompson/Shaun Livingston/Jonas Jerebko/Jordan Bell at one point. Cook, Jerebko, and Bell couldn’t even get on the floor during the first part of the conference semifinals, yet the Warriors were content to let all three roll together against the Blazers.
Oracle Arena seemed much more muted throughout, even as their favorite son Curry went off. The Warriors’ own celebrations paled in comparison to their reactions after winning game 5 versus Houston, when Curry kissed the floor of the arena after time expired.
There were off-court reasons to be excited about Warriors-Blazers: the brother matchup between Steph and Seth Curry, the podcast feud between CJ McCollum and Durant, and even some bad blood between Zach Collins and Thompson, of all people. But on the floor, these two teams don’t really belong in the same discussion. Far from dueling his brother, Seth Curry lost his matchup to his former Duke backcourt mate, Cook. McCollum couldn’t find his shot or figure out Golden State’s traps, as he and Damian Lillard shot a combined 11-of-31 with 10 turnovers. And Collins finished with the same plus-minus (minus-11) as Kanter.
It takes a special team to earn the attention of these Golden State Warriors. The Rockets did that with their talent, and the Clippers did that with their heart. The Blazers haven’t figured out yet what they can bring to the table to force the Warriors to be at their best. Unless they do soon, this series will continue to be a snooze fest.