A sweep for Warriors, but a sweet year for Blazers
The game ended — the season, too — on a Damian Lillard 3-point attempt from the right corner that wasn't close.
As time expired in overtime Monday night at Moda Center, the scoreboard read Golden State 119, Portland 117.
The Warriors celebrated on the court. The Trail Blazers slowly moved in to offer congratulations to their conquering foes.
The partisans quietly moved out of the arena, into the cool evening air, disappointed with the result but surely acknowledging they had been treated to one whale of a finale.
The ledger will register a four-game sweep for the Warriors, who move on to their fifth consecutive NBA Finals, a mark not achieved since the legendary Boston Celtics of the 1960's.
"I hope it doesn't go unnoticed or underrated," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said of the latter accomplishment. "It hasn't been done for a reason. It's really difficult."
This sweep is much different than the ones of which Portland was on the short end the previous two seasons. The Blazers reached "deeper water" this time, Lillard said.
"You'd rather be swept in the Western Conference finals than in the first round," he noted.
Nobody can argue that. This one was different than the average sweep in another way, too. The Blazers held leads of 17 points or more in each of the last three games of the series. They were rolling by a 95-78 count inside the final two minutes of the third quarter in Monday's Game 4 before the bubble burst — again.
"In the end, it's a sweep, but we had to fight and scrap and claw for three of the four victories," Kerr said. "This was a lot more difficult than it may have appeared."
When a series ends, the winning coach always pays his dues to the losers in a postgame media conference. Kerr's homage seemed more genuine than most. He spent a season (2001-02) as a player in Portland, and understands the charms of the city and the loyalty of the Blazer backers.
"I've always loved this city, loved the fan base, the energy in this building," Kerr said. "This version of the Blazers over the last few years has been one of my favorite teams to watch.
"I have so much respect for Terry (Stotts) and his staff and the players. What Damian and CJ (McCollum) do as leaders and a backcourt together is amazing to watch. This city loves its team, and they should love this version of the team as much as any of them because they're a great group. They've had a fantastic year."
The Blazers were in great position to win in each of the last three games, but couldn't seal the deal. The Warriors, hunting their third straight NBA championship, always found a way to win.
"We know we can cover 17 points in a matter of three, four minutes," said Golden State forward Draymond Green, who knocked down a 3-point shot from the right corner with 39.6 seconds left in overtime for what proved to be the winning basket. "We always try to keep that mind-set, that we're never out of a game. We understand what we're capable of. We're never out of the fight."
That, and the savvy the Warriors have gained through the past five playoff runs, makes them a very difficult out.
"They have a confidence about them," Stotts said. "They have the experience. They've done it before.
"Defensively, they know how to make things difficult for opponents. They help each other. They pass. They trust each other. When they've been rewarded year after year with that style of play, there's a reason to trust it."
Green and Stephen Curry had triple-doubles, but in much different ways.
Curry bombed in 37 points, but what's new? He scored 36, 37, 36 and 37 in the four games, a model of consistency the league has rarely seen. Seth's older brother also had 13 rebounds and 11 assists for the second postseason triple-double of his career.
The 6-9 Green notched his second triple-double in as many games, collecting 18 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists along with three steals and two blocked shots in 43 remarkable minutes.
Curry and Klay Thompson — who chipped in 17 points — are the "Splash Brothers," but Green is the straw that stirs the Warriors' drink.
"He's non-stop talking on the court," Lillard said. "He's rebounding the ball. He's basically the point guard of the team. He's pushing the ball. He's making plays. He's calling out our plays. He's controlling everything for them. It keeps them consistent. It keeps them steady."
Portland's best player on Monday was Meyers Leonard, the oft-maligned center/forward who has been in and out of Stotts' rotation not just this season, but for seven years. Leonard, who had scored a career playoff-high 16 points while getting his first-ever postseason start in Game 3, kicked it up to star status Monday night.
The 7-1 Leonard scored 25 points in the first half — yes, the first half — to better his career high for a full game in the regular season (24). He knocked down 10 of 12 shots and helped stake Portland to a 69-65 lead at intermission. Leonard finished with 30 points on 12-for-16 shooting and also grabbed 12 rebounds in 40 minutes — more than he'd ever played in an NBA game.
"In the first half, I looked up (at the reader board) and it was like, 'This dude has 25 points — he's killing it right now,'" Lillard said with a smile. "I had never seen him have a moment like that. What better time for him to have that type of moment?
"We've been here together for seven years, so to see him have a moment like that — nobody was more happy for him than I was. I just wish it would have come in a win."
Leonard's hot hand — he was 5 for 8 from 3-point range, 5 for 6 in the first half — had an impact on Golden State's defensive plan, which opened things up for Lillard and McCollum (26 points, seven assists) on the perimeter.
"The game softened up when Meyers started making 3's," Kerr said. "We had to make some adjustments. As soon as we did that, Damian's eyes lit up. He started to see single coverage, and he got going. It made things really difficult on us."
In Games 2 and 3, the Blazers relinquished their lead in a hurry in the third quarter. On Monday, the downturn came later. They still led 101-90 early in the final period, but the Warriors gradually reeled them in.
Lillard — who finished with 26 points and 12 assists — had two chances to win it with the score tied at 111-111 in the closing seconds of regulation. He missed a 3-point attempt with 31 seconds remaining. Then, after a Curry turnover, Lillard couldn't get a driving hook shot to go down just before time expired.
Green's 3-pointer in overtime "was the biggest shot of the game," Kerr offered. "And he's not even a 3-point shooter. But Draymond did what Draymond does — he hits big shots."
After Lillard scored on a layup to cut Portland's deficit to 119-117 with 32.8 seconds left in the extra session, Curry missed a floater. The Blazers rebounded, and Lillard drove the left side, but his layup attempt was blocked out of bounds with 3.3 seconds to go. Stotts called time out and drew up a play that had Lillard and McCollum coming off curls toward the basket.
"Getting 'Dame' the ball over there was the first look," Stotts said, "and if (the Warriors) screwed up a switch, maybe we get Meyers going down the lane."
The ball was inbounded to Lillard, but there would be no heroics for him on this night. The separated ribs he'd been dealing with since Game 2 "was there, it's pain, but it's not something that's impacting what I'm doing on the floor," he said afterward.
What did impact him was the Warriors' swarming defense, and a season that had stretched into his 96th game.
"It's just fatigue, and all the (defensive) attention," he said. "This being the deepest (into a season) we've played, and teams are coming after you. It takes energy to deal with that and to make plays and to try to score, and to go to the (defensive) end and chase guys around."
The Blazers, looking for the franchise's first trip to the NBA Finals since 1992, fell short. Even with the sweep, the Warriors knew they'd been in a battle.
"(Portland's) backcourt is a nightmare, trying to stay in front of them," Kerr said. "You have to commit help. You have to have a five-man defensive effort. That leaves you vulnerable in areas. Tonight, they did their best job of exposing those vulnerabilities.
"Meyers was fantastic, and they did a really good job of moving the ball. They had 31 assists, and our defense was shaky. We turned it up in the fourth quarter and overtime and got it done, but it was an uphill battle the whole way."
The Warriors went the entire series without injured starters Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, and a calf injury sidelined Andre Iguodala in Game 4.
"This group has a fiber to them where, when guys go down, they find a way to come together and compete and win," Kerr said. "It starts defensively. If you can defend at a high level in the playoffs, you always have a chance. The experience of winning titles helps you in these moments and helps you continue to move forward and come away with victories like tonight."
The Blazers, of course, were without center Jusuf Nurkic — their third-best player behind Lillard and McCollum — for their entire playoff run. They handled it beautifully until things turned fatal against the defending champion Warriors.
Portland had major achievements this season, winning 53 games in the regular season, then surviving playoff series against Oklahoma City and Denver to write the franchise's first ticket to a conference finals since 2000. That's where the Blazers met up with the wrong opponent. Since 2015, the Warriors are 12-1 in the playoffs against Blazers, winning the last 10 straight.
Even so, a Final Four run carries plenty of clout.
"Every team in the league (except Golden State, and Milwaukee and Toronto in the East) wishes they could be in our shoes," Lillard said.
Only one team can end on a winning note, and it won't be the Blazers.
"This is not the way we wanted to finish the season," Leonard said. "But we know we can play with the elite teams in this league. Now, we have to find a way to take another step."