OAKLAND, Calif. — In a brave attempt to catch up with the rest of the N.B.A.’s Western Conference powerhouses, the Portland Trail Blazersoverhauled themselves after last season, when they won 51 games but were quickly vanquished from the playoffs. Through trades and free agency, they purged six of their seven top scorers, including the All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, now with the San Antonio Spurs.
Rebuilt around the young guards Damian Lillard (25.1 points per game this season) and C. J. McCollum (20.8), the Blazers created a quick, deep-shooting team in a loose image of the Golden State Warriors, led by Stephen Curry (30.1 points per game) and Klay Thompson (22.1).
What might be a second-round playoff series featuring two of the more entertaining backcourts began Sunday without Curry, out indefinitely with a knee sprain. Still, Game 1 was one-sided, as Thompson single-handedly outplayed Lillard and McCollum. Thompson scored early and often as the Warriors raced out to a quick lead and, ultimately, a 118-106 win at Oracle Arena.
For much of the first quarter, Lillard and McCollum were just as effective as Curry. But he was watching from the bench dressed in a blazer while they were combining to miss their first seven shots.
Thompson, assigned to guard Lillard, had 12 of his game-high 37 points in the first six minutes as the Warriors took an 18-4 lead.
“Not many guys in the league could chase Damian Lillard around for 37 minutes and score 37 points, too,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr said. “Klay is a tremendous two-way player.”
After Lillard finally scored, and was fouled, on a driving layup with about 30 seconds left in the first quarter, the Blazers still trailed, 34-17.
Thompson immediately responded with his fourth 3-pointer. It gave him 18 points and gave the Warriors a 20-point lead.
Thompson was quick to share credit with his teammates, and a pregame focus on defense.
“It feels like he runs off about a hundred ball screens a game,” Thompson said of Lillard. “So you’ve got to trust your big guys back there, and they made it tough for him at the rim, at the 3-point line. And that’s what we’ve got to do all series.”
Lillard finished with 30 points, 18 in an inconsequential fourth quarter. McCollum had 12. Together, they shot 13 of 43.
“We score a lot of points for the team,” said Lillard, his voice raspy from a chest cold. “That gives us our best chance to win games, especially against a team that can fill it up like them.”
The Warriors remain unsure how long Curry will be out with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee. He is not expected to play Game 2 on Tuesday, but Game 3 in Portland does not come until Saturday. Curry has done some “standstill shooting,” Kerr said, but it may not be before midweek that he gets into any game-type simulation.
“We’ll just monitor him and see how it all goes, and, hopefully, get him back at some point,” Kerr said.
The Blazers did not surrender without spunk. They cut the 20-point lead in half quickly in the second quarter, sending occasional ripples of unease through the crowd, and carved it into single digits with about two minutes left before intermission.
But the Warriors, who score in unpredictable and entertaining splashes, pushed the lead to 65-51 at halftime. Early in the third quarter, the gap was above 20 again.
It was a disappointing result for Lillard, who grew up in Oakland and attended his grandfather’s 80th birthday party on Saturday. The rudest part of the homecoming might have come in the second quarter, when Draymond Green blocked Lillard’s layup attempt. Lillard fell, the crowd rose, and Green shouted down to his opponent.
“I didn’t say too much of nothing,” Green said later, grinning.
It was Green who provided the intangible difference between the Warriors and their opponent, as he often does. The team’s do-everything heart, he had a triple-double: 23 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists. But he also led the Warriors in attitude. After a steal off Mason Plumlee, he turned upcourt, shouted at the Blazers’ bench, then drove to the basket and into Plumlee, drawing a foul.
“He’s probably the best all-around player in the league at this point,” Golden State center Andrew Bogut said. Thompson, sitting nearby, nodded.
The script to a postseason championship was supposed to head this way for the Warriors, history’s best regular-season team: a cruise through the first round and momentum entering May. After beating Houston in the first round, the Warriors, 73-9 in the regular season, were expected to be tested first by the rival Los Angeles Clippers in the second round, then by either the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder.
But, as with a book turned into a movie, plot twists were added for effect. The Curry injury was the biggest rewrite. Then the Clippers were battered and dispatched in six games by the Blazers — after Portland lost Game 1 in a blowout similar to Sunday’s, as Coach Terry Stotts reminded his players.
The results left the Warriors with a somewhat unexpected, and dangerous, second-round opponent.
In the regular season, the Warriors were 3-1 against the Blazers, with three of those games after the All-Star break. On Feb. 19, Lillard scored a career-high 51 points in a 137-105 Portland victory, the most lopsided of Golden State’s losses. On March 11, the teams combined to make 37 3-pointers, a league record. Curry had seven, Lillard nine.
The thought of facing the Blazers, especially without Curry, might have been nerve-racking — and might still prove to be. But if Thompson can outproduce Portland’s backcourt by himself, and if Curry can get healthy while he watches it happen from the sideline, the Blazers will be little more than bit players in a Golden State season moving toward June.
Source Cowan: NYTimes