Third strike leaves Blazers on brink of sweep
The trouble with these darn NBA playoffs games is that they last 48 minutes.
It's a bad break for the Trail Blazers, who have made the Golden State Warriors cry "uncle" in the first half of each of the last two games of the Western Conference finals.
But with Commissioner Adam Silver denying Portland's bid for a rule change, the Warriors will take a commanding 3-0 lead into Monday's 6 p.m. Game 4 at Moda Center.
"You never want a series to end, especially on the home court," Portland's CJ McCollum said after Golden State's come-from-behind 110-99 victory Saturday night at Moda. "Everybody on this team has pride. We understand what's at stake. We've been through a lot of adversity this season. We're looking forward to the challenge.
"We've dug ourselves quite a hole, but now it's just one game at a time. We'll do our best to put on a good show on Monday."
The Blazers did that through 24 minutes on Saturday. With surprise starter Meyers Leonard — making his third start of the season, and his first of the playoffs — providing a lift, Portland built a lead of 18 points in the second quarter and took a 66-53 advantage into halftime. Leonard had 13 points in the first half, and coach Terry Stotts went deep into his bench, with 10 players scoring at least one basket in the game's first 15 minutes.
"The first half, everybody contributed — the starters, the bench," Stotts said. "Different combinations worked well. If you score 66 points in a half, a lot of people contribute."
Leonard has been in and out of the rotation all season and has had 26 DNP-CDs (did not play/coach's decision) this season, including five in the playoffs. After a strong performance off the bench in Game 3, the 7-1 center started in place of Enes Kanter.
"He had a terrific first half, like the rest of the team," Stotts said of Leonard, who finished with a career playoff-high 16 points, including 3 of 7 3-pointers, along with three rebounds and four assists in 31 minutes. "He can space the floor and he and 'Dame' and CJ have a good two-man game. It was designed to help our offense.
"It looked good in the first half, but not so much in the second half, though that wasn't his fault."
The second half was a train wreck, as it had been in Game 2 Thursday night at Oracle Arena, when the Warriors used a 13-0 run early in the third quarter to leap back from a 15-point halftime deficit and pave the way to a 114-111 triumph.
On Saturday, Portland's lead disappeared in a flash, too. The Blazers made 5 of 18 shots and were outscored 29-13 in the quarter, which sent them into the final period trailing 82-79.
"The third quarter was a killer again," McCollum said.
Portland was still within 90-85 with 6:21 left, though, and with McCollum at the line for three free throws, a race to the finish seemed on. But he missed the latter two attempts and, seconds later, air-balled an open 3-pointer from the corner, and the Warriors quickly built the margin up to 95-85. The Blazers got no closer than eight points the rest of the way.
"Our offense fell apart," Stotts said. "We missed some shots, took some tough shots, didn't move the ball as well. (The Warriors) were scoring, so we were taking it out of the net.
"I said at the beginning of the series, to beat Golden State, you have to score. Scoring 33 in the second half is not going to do it."
Stephen Curry produced his customary pointage — he had 36 after scoring 36 in Game 1 and then 37 in Game 2. And Klay Thompson chipped in 19 points. But the Warriors' bell-ringer was Draymond Green, who had his seventh career postseason triple-double in the bag by early third quarter and finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists along with four steals.
"His stats are ridiculous," Thompson said. "I've seen him do it — fill up a box score — for seven years. He's like a secondary point guard out there."
With Kevin Durant still idled by a sore calf muscle, Green has taken it upon himself to do more with the ball, to push the pace, to get the Warriors' offense in gear, to find open teammates.
"It's like he has eight eyeballs," Curry said.
"He was the difference-maker," Stotts said. "He kept them going in the first half. He had such an impact on the game in both ends with his playmaking and his scoring, and defensively, he was all over the place. He was the player of the game tonight."
"One of the best games I've ever seen Draymond play," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. "He's playing unbelievably well right now — with force, with discipline, playing under control. He's not letting anything bother him. He's just moving on to the next play. It's as good as he's ever been."
Conversely, Portland's Big Two — McCollum and Damian Lillard — struggled as much as they ever have.
The backcourt pair combined to make 12 of 38 shots, including 5 of 19 from 3-point range.
McCollum was 7 for 20 from the field and 2 for 9 from the 3-point line, and made only 7 of 12 foul shots, including 1 of 5 in the critical fourth quarter. He also missed four shots from the field down the stretch.
"I just missed them," McCollum said. "I was as locked in as I could be. I prepared the same way I always do. No excuses. It's on me. Free throws are uncontested shots that you should make — especially a player of my caliber — and I didn't make them."
Lillard was even worse. He finished with 19 points, six rebounds and six assists and made only 5 of 18 shots from the field, and 3 of 9 from beyond the arc. He also had five turnovers and didn't look like the player who will likely be named to the second all-NBA team at season's end.
There were reports Saturday night that Lillard has been playing with "separated ribs" suffered early in the series. The Blazers, of course, haven't released any such information, and Lillard is playing regular minutes.
I ran across Golden State general manager Bob Myers after the game, who after expressing concern about the health of the Warriors' Andre Iguodala — who will get an MRI Sunday on a sore lower leg — asked about Lillard and McCollum.
"Those guys must be exhausted," he told me. "This isn't a team that quits. It's just surprising."
Is fatigue an issue?
"Everybody's tired," Lillard said. "It's the third round of the playoffs after a long season. Our last series (against Denver), I got a lot of (defensive) attention. Same thing in this series. It takes a lot to deal with that and then go out there and chase these guys around at the defensive end.
"Everybody's putting that effort out. I feel fine to go 40 minutes, but it's definitely tiring."
So, yeah, it's an issue. And maybe so are those "separated ribs," whatever that means.
But the Warriors are the biggest issue. They're good. They're resilient. They don't care if they're behind by 13 points at halftime.
"We said, 'Heck, that's a two-minute stretch for us if we lock in,'" Green said.
The Warriors are now minus-19 in the first half, but plus-55 in the second half in this series.
"It's such a long game," Kerr said. "There is time for so many swings in the game itself, especially these days, with so many 3-point shots taken, with lots of possession. When we were down, we knew we could get back in it. The defense is what allowed us to do it."
Lillard is shooting .326 from the field and averaging 20.3 points in the series — 5 1/2 points less than his regular-season average, far below the 33 points he averaged in the first round against Oklahoma City. The Warriors are using the 6-6 Iguodala or the 6-7 Thompson to defend him and are blitzing pick-and-rolls and getting extra help on every Lillard drive to the basket.
"In (the Warriors') minds, they know at some point, if we're going to beat them, I'm going to have to get rolling," Lillard said.
Monday would be a good time for that to begin.
No team has ever come back from an 0-3 hole to win an NBA playoff series.
The Blazers can't think beyond Game 4, of course.
"It starts with one," Lillard said. "We still have another game on our home floor, and that's a solid start for us. We can't look at Game 5 or Game 6. We have to get one. We're confident we can do that. Once we do that, we'll build from there."
In the back of their minds, the Warriors are thinking about a period of rest before the NBA Finals that could extend to nine days if they can close out the series Monday night.
"We won't talk about anything other than Game 4," Kerr said. "What's after that doesn't matter. It may be Game 5. What's after that may be Game 6."
The Warriors got the one that really mattered Saturday night.
"You come up here for two games, but the first one is the one you want to get," Kerr said. "Because if you don't get the first one, the second one becomes much more difficult."
Now the Warriors need just one more to write their ticket to their fifth straight NBA Finals.
"We're 48 minutes away," Thompson said, "which gets me excited just to think about it."
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