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Winners and Losers: Steph Magic Has Returned to Grace the Western Conference Finals

The Warriors star unleashed his 3-point artillery on Tuesday night to give Golden State a 1-0 series lead. And Portland’s defense didn’t do much to stop him.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The good, the bad, and the flamethrowing from Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

Game 1: Warriors 116, Trail Blazers 94

Winner: Steph Curry Magic Is All the Way Back

With no Kevin Durant on the floor, the staunch Rockets defense in his rearview mirror, and a different (and frankly lesser) defense now in front of him, Steph Curry put the key in the ignition and hit the afterburners. In retrospect, once his first 3 of the night grazed the net, Portland’s chances in Game 1 were over.

The saying “when it rains, it pours” is a pretty perfect description of Curry’s game, but for most of the playoffs’ first two rounds, foul trouble and poor shooting nights had Curry in a scoring desert. It wasn’t until the second half of Game 6 against Houston—during which he scored 33 points and 16 in the final five minutes—that he finally caught fire and was able to burn the Rockets. Curry continued to fan those flames on Tuesday night, when he looked like the dominant force that once shattered the league’s notions of what 3-pointers could be. By the three-minute mark of the third quarter, Curry had hit eight 3s on the night. He would go on to finish with nine, tying his personal playoff career high. In 35 minutes, he scored 36 points.

By now, we all know that part of Curry’s magic is how he affects the game without scoring. Defenses have to sell out to guard him for fear of what he may do; they double him and trap him just so that he can’t get free and launch 30-footers—which are about as simple as an easy layup for him. That, in turn, opens up the floor for the rest of his teammates to benefit. But waxing poetic about how Curry transcends the box score is nowhere near as enjoyable as witnessing him fill it up like he did on Tuesday night. And until Durant returns from his calf injury—he is set to be reevaluated sometime this week—Curry may just have to continue this run to get the Warriors back to the Finals. Lucky us.

Loser: The Blazers’ Defensive Strategy

Curry’s been known to transcend even solid defensive strategies, but in Game 1, the Blazers gave him more space to work with than an open floor plan on Property Brothers. Terry Stotts dropped his team back in pick-and-roll coverage, and with Curry as the ball handler, they may as well have gifted the Warriors points on a silver platter. Time after time, Enes Kanter and Zach Collins would fall back into the paint and all Curry had to do was pull the trigger or dribble into easy jumpers. Until the fourth quarter, the Blazers were essentially nowhere to be found when Curry lined up from 3—instead they looked catatonic as they watched the ball go over their heads and through the hoop. Even when Curry opted to drive, he was still able to get his trademark high-arching layups off or find another open man.

“They didn’t have a lot of time to prepare,” Steve Kerr said after the game when asked whether he was surprised by the way Portland defended Curry. “Now they have a tape to look at and they will make some adjustments.”

And it wasn’t just Curry. Portland struggled to defend the 3-point line all night (the Warriors shot an absurd 51.5 percent from beyond the arc as a team). Klay Thompson was often left open coming off screens, and he made 10 of his 24 shots, including three of nine from 3. Even Quinn Cook, who had seldom played in these playoffs, got in on the action, coming off the bench to hit two lead-maintaining 3s early in the fourth quarter. It was more than enough, and even though it was a high-stakes game, by the end the Warriors had turned it into just another regular-season matchup. Thompson and Curry didn’t even have to break the 40-minute mark. Stotts was asked about his team’s defensive strategy after the game, and he had some … thoughts:

Collins and Kanter have each had their stellar moments in these playoffs, but through at least one game, they both appear to be defensive liabilities. Kanter and Collins were both minus-11, and they were outrun by Golden State’s guards and outplayed by Draymond Green (who was a plus-12 with 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals, and three blocks) and the suddenly very reliable Kevon Looney. Kerr is right: Portland is going to have to make an adjustment, and fast.

Loser: The Other Backcourt

For the Blazers to have even a semblance of a chance in this series, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have to play like they belong in the same area code as Curry and Thompson. While that sounds nearly impossible, especially with the Splash Brothers playing as effectively as they did on Tuesday night, Portland’s backcourt at the very least cannot get outscored 62-36. Yep, that’s right—Curry alone had as many points as McCollum and Lillard combined. Together they shot 35 percent from the field and 30 percent from deep. [Insert “Not great, Bob” GIF here.]

And not only did Portland’s two best players fail to score, they also coughed the ball up at an alarming rate. Lillard alone had seven turnovers, McCollum added three of his own, and the Blazers finished with—shield your eyes—21 total turnovers, which led to a whopping 31 Warriors points.

That stat is especially painful because even while Curry was going supernova, Portland had plenty of chances to make it a game. On more than one occasion, the Blazers were able to cut the Golden State lead to six by getting to the line: The Blazers had 31 free throw attempts on the night and converted 27 of them. The whistle helped them out, but their guards—their two best players—did not. The score was 77-71 Warriors heading into the final quarter, and it felt like McCollum or Lillard were destined to conjure up some of the heroics we had seen from both in the playoffs. Instead, they each made only one shot the entire quarter—Lillard’s, which came with five minutes left in the game, was his second field goal since the 8:15 mark in the first. It was a credit to Golden State’s defense—to Andre Iguodala and Thompson specifically—that they were able to flummox the duo and force the rest of Portland’s roster to beat them. No one could.

Winner: Game-Changing Shots

In the last minute of the first half, Curry played his own game of pop-a-shot. First he went in for an easy layup; then he nailed two zero-hesitation 3-pointers. It was an exclamation point of a finish that ignited Oracle and set the course for the rest of the game:

In that video, Curry simultaneously looks like the past, present, and future version of the Warriors. This Curry, the one who swishes off-balance 3s, pulls up from near the half-court logo, and celebrates like a half-asleep kid refusing to go to bed, is the one that first made the Warriors great. Without Durant’s presence on the floor, he’s the one carrying them again. And, if the rumors about Durant’s future—that he’s bolting for New York after this season—come true, well, this is what it will soon be like again.