The Portland Trail Blazers were a formidable, relentless and worthy adversary of the Golden State Warriors. And yet, the defending NBA champions were still able to dispatch the feisty No. 5 seed in five games with a 125-121 win at Oracle Arena on Wednesday night.
It didn't come easy by any means, but the Warriors held off a late surge from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum before Stephen Curry drilled a step-back, fall-away three over Al-Farouq Aminu with 24 seconds to go to give the Warriors a five-point lead.
Curry, who accepted his second straight MVP from commissioner Adam Silver prior to tipoff, didn't quite resemble the player who erupted for 17 points in overtime just two days earlier. However, that's not to say he didn't fill it up.
Curry continued to shake off rust that accumulated during his two-week absence, and his night culminated with a couple of outrageous triples over the game's final four minutes to send the Warriors to their second straight Western Conference Finals, as the Orange County Register's Dan Woike noted:
Curry finished with 29 points on 10-of-20 shooting (5-of-11 from three) and 11 assists, while Thompson similarly starred in the closeout effort. Not only did Thompson notch his seventh consecutive playoff game with at least 20 points, per Warriors PR on Twitter, but he recorded a team-high 33 points on 13-of-17 shooting, including 6-of-9 from three.
Draymond Green, who told reporters he thought the Blazers were done following Game 4, according to ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss, rattled off 13 points, 11 rebounds and six assists despite coming up gimpy in the second half.
Lillard and McCollum led the Blazers with 28 and 27 points, respectively, and Allen Crabbe was huge off the bench as he poured in 20 points (7-of-9 shooting, 5-of-7 from three). In fact, that trio, along with Aminu (16 points, nine rebounds) gave the Dubs fits throughout the first half before the Warriors accelerated into fifth gear.
The Ringer's Bill Simmons was among those who praised Portland's resilient effort throughout the series:
The Blazers opened up a 10-point lead, 18-8, five minutes into the first quarter, and knocked down six treys during the game's first 12 minutes, to boot.
But despite thoroughly outplaying a Warriors team that came out sloppy through the first quarter, the Blazers didn't have a particularly large scoring margin to show for it.
The reason? Just some typical Warriors tomfoolery from Curry and Co. that helped fuel a big run as the period progressed:
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To their credit, the Blazers withstood a couple of powerful counterpunches and continued to frustrate the Warriors. A flurry of threes and some beautiful drive-and-kick efforts throughout the second quarter helped Portland briefly push its lead back into double digits, and the Warriors couldn't match their fluidity on offense.
Maurice Harkless, in particular, showed out when the first-half lights shined on Portland. Looking like a man who knows he'll be able to make some big money in restricted free agency this summer, Portland's birthday boy tallied 10 points and two steals over the first two quarters to further amplify Golden State's flat start.
As CSNBayArea.com's Monte Poole noted, the Warriors defense was uncharacteristically out of sync throughout the game's first 24 minutes:
Lillard led the way with 21 first-half points to push Portland's halftime edge to five, marking the fourth game in a row in which the Blazers owned a lead entering the locker room, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
And had it not been for Thompson, the Warriors would have been in a far more perilous position, as NBA.com/Stats illustrated on Twitter:
The defending champs were forced to make do in the second half without center Andrew Bogut—who was ruled out with a right adductor strain, per Warriors PR on Twitter—but they ripped off a 13-3 run just minutes into the third quarter to erase the halftime deficit.
The game slowly evolved into a shootout, but as CSNBayArea.com's James Ham observed, the Blazers' big edge in three-point volume still didn't allow them to create much separation:
Portland's inability to capitalize on its edge from beyond the arc proved costly, too, because Thompson caught fire and scored 16 third-quarter points to give his squad a slight two-point cushion through 36 minutes.
From that point forward, Golden State was in business.
With just 12 minutes between them and the Western Conference Finals, the Warriors locked in on defense, leaned on their stars and scrounged up enough offense to secure some much-needed rest before the next round gets underway.
The Blazers deserve credit for shattering expectations all season long and pushing the Warriors relentlessly in Games 3, 4 and 5, according to Clippers.com's Rowan Kavner:
But a gulf in big-game experience proved to be too much for the Western Conference darlings to overcome.
The Warriors, meanwhile, can breathe a sigh of relief. It wasn't always pretty, but the defending champions staved off waves of brilliance from the Blazers and avoided making a return trip to the Pacific Northwest.
And now, Golden State will need to rest up and prep for a more daunting foe. Because whether the Warriors face the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs next round, they're in for a grueling series.
Both prospective opponents present their own unique challenges to the Warriors, and it's hard to say at this point which team would represent a more appealing matchup. On one hand, the Spurs touted the NBA's top-ranked defense all season long, and they could force the Warriors into brutish low-scoring affairs like the ones that took place on March 19 or April 10.
Even if the Warriors avoid a clash with the Spurs, Oklahoma City will be lurking. And while the Thunder may not be as disciplined on defense, they're long and athletic enough to wreak havoc. Oh, and there's the matter of containing Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant—each of whom has taken his turn going ballistic against San Antonio.
So at this point, it's a pick-your-poison proposition for the Warriors. But regardless of which opponent Golden State draws, the series figures to be one for the ages.
Following the win, Curry broke things down with the Inside the NBA crew in a wide-ranging conversation, as Turner Sports PR on Twitter documented:
"He makes big-time shots," Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said of Curry, per the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ron Kroichick. "He's great for basketball. He's a special player who does special things."
"That might be the closest five-game series of all time," Thompson said, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver.
Of course, Stotts wasn’t surprised by his team’s fight.
"It’s what we do," he said of the Blazers’ competitive nature, according to the Oregonian’s Mike Richman.
"We had to fight, scrap, claw and do everything possible," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said, per the San Francisco Chronicle’s Rusty Simmons.
"It's not often you play against a team [and] admire them at the same time," Kerr added per Golliver. "I admire what they do. ... Much respect."
According to Strauss, Kerr sees rivalry potential between the Warriors and Blazers based simply on the way their point guards match up:
In the injury department, Green revealed that he had been bothered by an ankle sprain.
"It's a bit sore for sure," he said, per Strauss.
"I didn't want to go back to Portland," Green added, according to Golliver. "... 4-1? It didn't feel like that. I gained a lot of respect for those guys."