The Portland Trail Blazers made a real contest out of Game 2 of their Western Conference Finals series against the Golden State Warriors. After getting blown out in Game 1, head coach Terry Stots rejiggered his lineups and—thank God—his defensive approach, and the result was a 15-point halftime lead. But for as much progress as the Trail Blazers made, they were still a long way from perfect, and it turns out you have to be at least a little bit closer to perfect to snatch a win from the Warriors in Oakland.
Some of what Portland improved in Game 2 had to do with shifting minutes away from Enes Kanter, whose limitations in pick-and-roll defense were a glaring, oozing vulnerability throughout Game 1. Kanter, who didn’t play especially poorly during his Game 2 minutes, was limited to 19 minutes of run, ten fewer than he played Tuesday night, as Stotts leaned more heavily on [gulp] Meyers Leonard. Mostly this was out of necessity—Zach Collins, whose decent agility suits him much better to a scrambling, trapping style of defense, picked up five fouls in just eight minutes in Game 2, forcing Stotts to replace Kanter’s ultra-slow interior game with Leonard’s ultra-slow perimeter game.
Stotts also overhauled Portland’s pick-and-roll defense, after being snippy about the suggestion following the Game 1 blowout. Wednesday, Stotts offered to apologize to the reporter who broached the topic, and admitted he needed to make an adjustment, saying “[the Warriors] scored 39 in the fourth quarter without [Curry] scoring one basket in the pick-and-roll, so it goes beyond that, but yes, we have to revisit what we want to do on pick-and-rolls.”
And revisit it they did. Right from the opening tip, the Blazers were hounding and trapping Curry in high pick-and-rolls, which is generally useful for forcing the ball out of his hands, and becomes at least theoretically vastly more sensible when he doesn’t have Kevin Durant around to take on playmaking and shot-creating duties. But Stotts deserves if not credit then certainly a ton of slack, because while it’s true that there are for sure wrong ways of defending Stephen Curry—and what Portland did in Game 1 is for sure among them—there’s no exact right way. Thursday night Curry responded to the more aggressive pick-and-roll coverage by dumping the ball off early in the action and then zipping around to take advantage of the ensuing defensive scramble. It worked spectacularly, to the tune of 37 points on 22 shots, which incidentally is one more point than he had in Game 1, and on one fewer shot. That’s just so insanely unfair.
By no means should this result—a 114–111 loss—be seen as discouraging for the Blazers. They were extremely close Thursday night, even with Damian Lillard having a relatively quiet first half*. Only a late fourth-quarter 14–4 Warriors run highlighted by some uncharacteristically poor shooting from C.J. McCollum put the Warriors back in control. Stotts leaned on a quirky Lillard-McCollum-Seth Curry-Evan Turner-Leonard lineup a touch too long, trusting them to play through the early stages of Golden State’s decisive run and into crunch time, until eventually they started giving up plays like this:
Still, it’s also true that for whole big chunks of the second half, the Blazers were on the cusp of Doing The Shit while giving big minutes to Meyers friggin’ Leonard. If you’re that close with Leonard on the floor, you’re very, very close.
And the Blazers’ job will get a little easier in front of their fantastic home crowd, back in Portland, in Games 3 and 4. Warriors general manager Bob Myers revealed before Game 2 that Kevin Durant will not travel with the team to Portland, and a post-game update makes it sound like the Warriors may have even misdiagnosed the injury:
It’s entirely possible that the Warriors will continue to rediscover their pre-Durant form and rampage for the rest of this series, but a relatively simple defensive adjustment and a return to normal shooting efficiency had Portland right in there in Game 2, in a game where several things still went wrong, and in a game where Steph Curry was once again bananas. For now this series appears to be a long way from over.