There are shades of victory within the category of uneven playoff matchups that correspond to the yawning gap in expectations. For the far-and-away favorite there’s winning, and there’s winning by an appropriately dominant margin, and closing out the series in an appropriately cursory number of games.
Lacking a poker hand that includes the four best games of their lives and several acts of god, flat-out winning is barely a hope for the underdogs. But there is an entire ecosystem of attainable moral victories to be had. For instance: against all odds, making the playoffs in the first place. Or making the much better, much more talented, and better-coached team actually have to work for its lunch. Or having its best players show out under tidal waves of duress.
This, in a nutshell, is the 1–8 bracket between the Warriors and the Blazers.
Wednesday night, after three relatively even minutes of first-quarter play, Golden State turned the knob up from “Unfair” to “Doomsday Weapon” and blew the Trail Blazers off the surface of the planet. Steph Curry stroked a 3, then turned around to shimmy gently as the ball ripped twine. With Kevin Durant out with a calf injury, Klay Thompson turned molten with early touches. When Portland’s defense tried to react to the fireworks on the perimeter, JaVale McGee rolled inside for a series of long-armed dunks. The Blazers turned the ball over eight times in the quarter, and the Warriors feasted like vikings after a sack. Meyers Leonard got yanked back to the pine after blowing one defensive possession. After 12 minutes of play, the score was 33–17, Oakland Light-Years.
Then, in the second, Portland, like a microcosm of its 2016–17 season, did that thing where it came back from dead. That was the Blazers’ moral victory; mission accomplished, guys. The Warriors are at their most swaggering when swashbuckling their way to a home blowout. The flip side, in those situations, is that they have a tendency to subtly loosen their grip on an opponent’s neck. That they did. And the Blazers, for a moment, got hot. Then it was over. The Dubs drilled down the screws, Draymond Green played with that “I could get a tech at any moment” edge, and the momentarily delayed blowout was back on the menu. Warriors 110, Blazers 81.
The best example of the expectation gap between the Warriors and the Blazers is a pair of recent articles: “The Revenge of Stephen Curry, the Happy Warrior,” and “Blazers’ Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum Are Hungry to Even Series With the Warriors.”
The first is a style piece from GQ, depicting Steph as the NBA’s natty Boy Scout assassin and church-going family man. It talks about Curry as a player who gets buckets so easily that the process of flicking the ball at the rim threatens to become boring to him. It talks about Steve Kerr’s insistence that his team play with “joy.” It makes no mention of the team’s current playoff matchup with Portland — likely due to print deadlines — but contains a paragraph about Curry and crew lighting last season’s Blazers on fire like an old mattress. The text and subtext is about victory so assured it’s practically their birthright. Curry and the Warriors are so good that you can put him on the cover of your monthly magazine and write about them without acknowledging their opponents or the possibility that they might lose. At least in the first round.
The latter article, from the website The Undefeated, paints the picture of an underweight squad looking to give an opponent their best punch. It’s a piece about sports and hunger and hard work and attacking despite the odds and the Warriors are mentioned seven times because, let’s face it, the Blazers can’t beat them.
Lillard and McCollum gave the Warriors their hardest haymaker in Game 1, combining for 75 of the Blazers’ 109 points. Jusuf Nurkic, the Bosnian muscle car the Blazers rode from a disappointing 22–28 start to the season to a .500 record and the eighth seed of the playoffs, missed Games 1 and 2 and is questionable for the series with a fibula fracture. The Blazers lack defensive players and rigor, and don’t have a viable third scorer. Just getting here is kind of a win. The Warriors have four of the best 20 players in the league, an offense that can scald your retinas, a defense that can crush your windpipe, and a philosopher king head coach whose team is so fucking good that his worries transcend plays and sets and extend to their level of joy.
Don’t expect Durant for Game 3.