The good, the bad, and the dominant of the Golden State Warriors’ clockwork 110-99 victory against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
Winner: Playoff Draymond Green
The beauty of Green’s role within the Warriors universe is that it has no limitations. He blurs the lines between positions, responsibilities, and acceptable displays of emotion. Like any good relationship, it’s fostered by Golden State’s embrace of Green as the unique player he is, for better and worse. Game 3 of the Western Conference finals was yet another example of what “for better” looks like. Green morphed into whatever the Warriors needed him to be: from perimeter defender to rim protector, from scorer to playmaker, from rebounder to pacemaker, from the team’s motivator to Jordan Bell’s personal therapist. He does it all.
Draymond talking to Jordan Bell is good stuff pic.twitter.com/F3AGvm3MFW— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) May 19, 2019
When Green spearheaded a vintage third quarter in Game 2, it felt like we were watching the best version of him again, the version that defined the Warriors’ champion-level frontcourt even before Kevin Durant showed up. But in Game 3, Green reached an even higher level: He was the best player on the floor.
Three quarters into the game, he had recorded an 18-11-11 triple double and added a steal and three blocks (he finished with 20 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists, and four steals). Green probably couldn’t outrun most of the players on the court on Saturday in a 100-meter dash, but within the specific dimensions of an NBA court, and the specific framework of the game, he can be the quickest player.
Saying a player is everywhere on the court is usually an exaggeration to make a point, but Green invites exaggeration. And it’s not just what but how he does it that’s mind-bending. He plays with such frantic energy that there’s no way he should be making the smartest plays and the right moves all at once. Given how he struggled during the regular season, it is safe to say his fuel is the high stakes, and it’s why he’s been playing at an elite level ever since the playoffs began. Saturday’s game was his magnum opus.
“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond,” Steve Kerr said postgame. At this point, neither do I, so let’s just watch and admire instead:
Loser: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum
So much of Lillard’s and the Blazers’ narrative this season was wrapped up in erasing what happened in last year’s playoffs when they were embarrassed by the Pelicans in the first round. And so it makes sense that Lillard gave it all during that first-round series when he sent the Thunder home in the loudest possible way. Despite struggling a bit the next round against the Nuggets, Portland squeaked through. With such high stakes, I thought we would see a stronger Lillard once again this round. Instead, it’s looking more and more like he literally gave all he had to make it past those first two rounds.
Game 3 was proof of how overmatched and, frankly, tired Lillard and Co. look. It appears that Lillard is also hurt. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported postgame that Lillard suffered a separated rib in Game 2 that he played through Saturday night. When the Blazers were overrun by Golden State’s 29-13 third quarter, desperation kicked in, but Lillard’s legs weren’t helping. It’s clear now that his struggles are, in part, a product of not being 100 percent healthy. Shots were short or completely off—he made only three in the entire second half and finished 5-of-18 on the night, and 3-of-9 from deep. It was his worst shooting performance of the series, which is saying a lot, given that he shot below 40 percent during the other two. This series hasn’t been kind to Lillard.
While the Thunder were one of the better defenses during the regular season, the Warriors defense has now flipped that championship-level switch and forced both Lillard and CJ McCollum into tired and tough shots by throwing double-teams and traps at them at the perfect time. McCollum didn’t fare much better than Lillard—he shot 7-of-20 from the field and 2-of-10 from 3. Neither has scored 25 points or more in any game this series. Even if Rodney Hood goes off, Zach Collins has a big night, or Seth Curry makes shots, Portland’s two best players failing to do what they do best will never cut it against Golden State.
Loser: Terry Stotts’ Not-So-Big Adjustment
Minutes before Game 3, Terry Stotts inserted Meyers Leonard into the starting lineup in place of Enes Kanter. Maybe this was Stotts trying to respond to Stever Kerr’s quizzical move to start Damian Jones at center—yes, that Damian Jones, who hadn’t played meaningful minutes prior to this series since December. At the start of the second half, Jones was on the bench (he picked up three fouls in three minutes), and Leonard was the Blazers’ leading scorer. “The Meyers Leonard Game!” we all said in the moment, clearly getting ahead of ourselves.
Leonard, an Abercrombie & Fitch henley-modeling mannequin galloping around a basketball court, appeared to change the dynamic of Portland’s offense for the better in the first half. Unlike Enes Kanter, who resides mostly in the post and in the paint, Leonard can work from behind the 3-point line, using screens and handoffs to give Lillard and McCollum more space to work with. But once the Warriors locked down and deployed their Ziploc-tight defense, any kind of advantage Leonard presented was erased. After dropping a team-high 13 in the first half (in retrospect, this was an extremely concerning development for the Blazers) he scored only three in the second half.
Stotts, to be fair, has been trying to fit a round peg into a square hole all series. He doesn’t have the talent or versatility to keep up with Golden State and whatever big he tries to deploy either gets into foul trouble (Zach Collins, who was a minus-8 in 20 minutes), is terrible defensively (Kanter, who played seven minutes), or, like Leonard (minus-17 in 31 minutes), doesn’t have enough firepower to keep up. And if they go small at center, well, good luck getting any rebounds. Maybe there is no answer, no combination or rotation that can keep Portland in this series. So far it certainly looks that way.
Winner: The Warriors’ 12(?!?)-Man Rotation
Kerr’s move to start Jones was like a preemptive victory cigar, a heat check for a coach that has cycled through every possible starting center (aside from Kevon Looney) since Durant went out, and gotten away with it. The idea, as always, has been technically sound, but frustrating. There’s little doubt that if Kerr played Curry, Green, and Klay Thompson heavier minutes, these games wouldn’t even be close. But instead, Kerr has opted for reaching deep into his roster, playing up to 12 players (that’s everyone on the team except for rookie Jacob Evans—poor guy) and spreading the minutes around, unlike his approach against the Rockets. The message is clear: Houston was the real roadblock; Portland is just a bump in the road on the way to the Finals.
In Game 3, though, some of Kerr’s long-game mentality bore best-case results. Jones aside, the Warriors’ bench scored 33 points, which matched the Blazers’ bench. All season long, Golden State’s depth beyond their best six or seven players has been questionable, so matching the production of Portland’s bench is a minor miracle, and it all but assured that the Warriors would not lose the game. There’s an argument to be made that without Durant on the floor, the system Kerr wants to establish is more prone to helping guys like Quinn Cook (six points), Alfonzo McKinnie (plus-24 in 21 minutes), and Jordan Bell (six points, a block, plus-10 in 15 minutes) contribute, not to mention Looney, who has been the Warriors’ best center and keeps improving as his role increases. Getting the most out of these players now is crucial because it helps them gain confidence and gives the starters more rest—only Thompson played 40 minutes. Both of those things could be invaluable in the Finals where the Bucks will likely await.