The Portland Trail Blazers held a 15-point lead over the Golden State Warriors at halftime in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, but anyone paying attention over the past five seasons of this inexorable dynasty knows: Warriors games don’t start until the third quarter. The team has led the league in third-quarter net rating during the regular season in each of the past five seasons; in the aggregate, they’ve outscored opponents by an estimated 15.9 points per 100 possessions in that specific frame over those five seasons.
The inevitable, stultifying Warriors runs over the years often originate in the third quarter. Thursday night’s 114-111 come-from-behind victory over Portland was just the latest data point in a four-year set. There was a tidiness to the Warriors’ creeping second-half onslaught; they dealt their blows in round numbers. Six points from Klay Thompson in 40 seconds. Curry hit a 3 with 9:11 remaining in the third. From that second on, the Warriors poured in 10 straight points in exactly two minutes, from 9:11 to 7:11. Not exactly wordplay, but numberplay: an assertion that, at any point in the game, they can instill a state of emergency at their convenience.
The Warriors have been without Kevin Durant for three games now, and without KD’s soloistic brilliance, the team has taken on a vintage glow. The Warriors over the years have often overcomplicated their offense, seemingly to keep things fresh. But against a Portland team that simply does not possess the proper personnel to effectively defend the Warriors’ bread-and-butter plays, they’ve kept things simple. The Blazers have been buried under an avalanche of Steph Curry–Draymond Green pick-and-rolls and their unlimited permutations. Curry is the best shooter this planet may ever see; Green might be the best playmaker out of the roll we’ve ever seen. The two-man game inherently creates a four-on-three advantage, but with two players, world-class at what they do, operating in lockstep, it can feel more like a five-on-one advantage.
Golden State plays fast. While they were only 10th in pace during the regular season, their offensive possessions, on average, last 13.4 seconds—third in the league, according to Inpredictable. Pace trickles in the postseason compared to the regular season, and the Warriors often aligned themselves with that trend given Durant’s one-on-one ability. But with him out of the lineup, there is a certain flow to the way the Warriors run their plays that feels … nostalgic? By the second half of Game 2, it seemed as though the court was on a tilt every time the Warriors came down the floor; they were playing downhill on each possession. Green was Game 2’s MVP, making pinpoint decisions on both sides of the floor, en route to 16 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, and five blocks. On his best nights—and his best nights are often saved for the postseason—he is the flow of the game. He reads the floor two steps ahead of his competition and one step ahead of his teammates; and in a game where he faced almost zero pressure from the Blazers’ frontcourt options, that meant easy points for the teammates around him. Six of his seven assists on the night went for layups or dunks; he accounted for 31 of the Warriors’ 114 points in total.
Portland may have lost by only three, but the situation isn’t exactly rosy for the team heading back home. This was the best the Blazers had shot from 3 all postseason long, and they couldn’t stick the landing; there likely won’t be many 18-for-39 games from downtown in the future. There are adjustments the Blazers can make, but it’s worrisome that coach Terry Stotts hasn’t been more proactive in a series against the prohibitive favorites. Enes “Can’t Play” Kanter has returned; Meyers Leonard was no less hopeless guarding the pick-and-roll. Zach Collins would likely be the team’s best frontcourt defender in the series if he could keep himself out of foul trouble. The Blazers could opt to downsize and switch every screen, but the small-ball minutes that Stotts did turn to were disastrous, allowing the Warriors to nab second chance after second chance. You don’t beat the Warriors without securing the defensive glass, which puts the Blazers in a catch-22: Their best defensive rebounder is also their biggest defensive liability.
Damian Lillard should have an easier go at home getting into a rhythm before the Warriors set their traps, and the bench play from Rodney Hood and Seth Curry has been heartening at the very least. Both Hood and Curry are playing for big contracts in the summer, and they’re seeing their value rise by the minute. As a severe underdog, Portland must engage in severe underdog tactics. Its defensive effort was much more consistent (and coherent) in Game 2, but betting that your defensive acuity can hold up for 48 minutes against some of the best playmakers in the game is a fool’s errand. This is a time to tempt fate, to place all your best 3-point shooters on the floor and let it fly. Winning against the Warriors requires an offensive blitz and a willingness to instill chaos. The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work. Few things have worked well against the Warriors over the past five seasons.
Golden State’s play over the past few games has hearkened back to their golden days; the crushing sense of inevitability is almost fun again. But four years after the Warriors’ first championship run, the futility of this Western Conference finals series is a stark reminder that for all that has changed in the way the game is played since 2015, the blueprint that they created is still as foolproof as it ever was. The Steph-Draymond pick-and-roll will haunt the Blazers over the next two days as the team heads back home, but hey, just know that there is no green curry on the menu at Pok Pok.