'They've been there'
Five straight trips to the NBA Finals don't happen because of luck. Not entirely. The Golden State Warriors are on the cusp of that achievement because of a sustained level of greatness eclipsed only by Bill Russell's Boston Celtics of 1957-66.
No other NBA team has been to more than four consecutive championship series.
The Trail Blazers, down 3-0, are about to become the latest casualty of Golden State's historic run, the penultimate blow of the Western Conference finals being a deflating 110-99 loss on Saturday at Moda Center.
Players in the Portland locker room, while glum, recognize the buzz saw they've run into. It rotates and cuts them apart, they say, because of two interlocked factors: defense and experience.
"They've been there," Blazers center Meyers Leonard said of the Warriors. "They're not only able to sustain a certain level, but take it to another level. That's when we have to lock in, execute, trust each other, get stops, rebound — the whole thing. … (The Warriors) have a high level of experience and talent."
Leonard thrust himself into the spotlight with a playoff career-high 16 points in 31 minutes Saturday after getting the starting nod. Like in Game 2, he could've played a key role in an upset victory for the Blazers. Instead, his performance is buried in a losing box score.
Buried, too, were the Blazers guards in Golden State's suffocating pick-and-roll defense, in which the Warriors blitzed CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard all night and wore down Portland's stars. By the midpoint of the fourth quarter, the Blazers looked exhausted.
The two-time defending champs, meanwhile, were bouncing up and down with elation. Guard Stephen Curry was letting out celebratory screams as he drained 3-pointers. Late in the game, Draymond Green high-fived his teammates so hard that the slaps reverberated to the upper levels of a silent Moda Center.
Golden State is doing it all without its best player — forward Kevin Durant — and All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins. The talent left over still rivals that of any team in the league, but this group is undermanned by its own standards and doesn't have the depth of previous Golden State teams.
And yet this team remains engaged for 48 minutes.
"They sustain energy," Portland swing man Evan Turner said. "We did it for a half a couple times, and sometimes it's also about how consistent you are, I guess. As great as our struggle was at points throughout the game, you can't do that against a team like that."
Green posted a triple-double with 20 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. He was often the one pushing the pace in transition and initiating Golden State's offensive attack. As the Blazers wore down, Green stepped on their throats.
Curry was superb in the fourth quarter after struggling for stretches of the game. He finished with 36 points and splashed outside shots throughout the fourth. When it rained, it poured, and the Blazers drowned.
"Any team that starts playing like that and playing with confidence, it's hard to stop them," Portland's Mo Harkless said. "Once they went on a 10-0 run or something like that in the third quarter, it's hard to come back from that, especially with a team that's been there before. They've been there many times, and they know how to close out games."
Lillard has often been the one closing games out for Portland, but lately he's been shut down. The long-distance shot to dispatch Oklahoma City is indelible in the memories of Blazer fans, but since Game 7 against Denver, he hasn't been at the top of his game.
But McCollum picked up the slack and helped lift Portland to the Western Conference finals. In this third-round series, however, Lillard and McCollum have faced a defensive puzzle they have yet to solve.
Their teammates, on the other hand, have been the first to come to Lillard's side in a time of peril for the team and for its talisman star. Pointed criticisms of Lillard, Leonard argues, are unfounded.
"I'm tired of people saying, 'Dame needs to step up, Dame isn't stepping up,'" Leonard said. "First of all, he's a damn good player, first team all-NBA player this year, and other guys have to be willing to screen, execute, make plays and help them out to loosen up the defense.
"That way, when (Lillard and McCollum) get looks, they knock them down. It's as simple as that."
This nucleus of Portland players has never been to a Western Conference finals together. Their tired legs, while largely a product of their opponent's tenacity on defense, are also giving way at the furthest point many of these guys have been in the NBA playoffs. Only Rodney Hood and Enes Kanter have played in the conference finals before.
"Experience plays a big role in these games because guys don't panic, guys don't get too excited, and that's kind of how you've got to be," Harkless said. "Every possession, no matter what the score is, you've got to be locked in and focused and never get too high or too low."
The experience necessary to thwart Golden State's third-quarter runs, to hang on to a lead in the fourth quarter, to break through the blitzes and deliver a signature offensive performance — it just hasn't been there yet for this group.
But through heartbreaking losses deep in the postseason and the shared experience of having made an inspiring run, the Blazers have a chance to go from plucky upstart to legitimate contender.
Their whole method of operation this postseason has been overcoming adversity to achieve the unprecedented. Who's to say this isn't part of the long game for a team coming into its own?
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