The Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors played four extremely high-scoring games this regular season in which the loser never scored fewer than 105 points and Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry went at each other as if they were entered into a three-point contest only they knew about. Saturday's Western Conference second-round Game 3 contest was perhaps the closest to those shootouts we'll see in the postseason. With Curry out for a third straight game, though, it was abundantly clear which player stood out as the top scorer on the floor.
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Fresh off 10-of-19 shooting from deep in two losses in his hometown of Oakland, Lillard excelled throughout Game 3 with a career playoff-high 40 points on 14-of-27 shooting from the field and 8-of-13 from beyond the arc to propel the Blazers to a 120-108 win at Moda Center. The home victory cuts the Warriors' advantage to 2-1 and creates new doubts in a series that looked to be heavily in the No. 1 seed's favor following a come-from-behind win in Game 2. A potential return to action for Curry could change the story for Game 4 and beyond, but for now the headlines belong to Lillard and the rest of the hot-shooting Blazers, who became the first team to beat the Warriors twice this season.
Lillard's dominant performance stands out as a signature game for a player who had been up-and-down in his first eight playoff appearances this season. That includes the mostly impressive two games at Oracle, where Lillard shot very well on three-pointers but went 6-of-27 on twos against the Warriors' stifling defense. Saturday proved a different story, with Lillard taking advantage of any open space and making plenty of high-difficulty shots to prove that only Curry is his better in shooting off the bounce. If that wasn't enough, he added 10 assists and five rebounds to join some elite company:
Players with 40+ points, 10+ assists in the playoffs since 2000: McGrady, Bryant, Parker, Rondo, Curry, Westbrook, James, Lillard.
— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) May 8, 2016
However, as Draymond Green said in his postgame press conference, the Warriors likely could have beaten the Blazers again if only Lillard had excelled. The difference in Game 3 was the play of Portland's other guys, from fellow backcourt star C.J. McCollum (22 points on 8-of-18 FG) to Allen Crabbe (plus-25 in 30 minutes) to Ed Davis (eight points and 10 boards). Yet no non-Lillard Blazers had a bigger impact than forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who missed only the last of his nine shots to finish with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
Aminu clearly played above expectations, but the Warriors can largely blame themselves for allowing him to go 4-of-5 on three-pointers. Golden State's rotations seemed a step slow for the majority of the game and allowed Aminu and several other spot-up shooters wide-open looks as Portland shot 17-of-30 on three-pointers. That dip in defensive energy was partly a function of a Blazers adjustment to get Green involved as a defender near the top of the key to minimize his roaming, but it was also the case that the Warriors just didn't look fully engaged. Both Green and Steve Kerr identified that lack of urgency after the game:
"I didn't feel like we played with the desperation that's necessary to win a playoff game." Steve Kerr
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 8, 2016
Green: "That team, they had doubt. I could tell they had doubt. And we didn't take advantage of it. ... And that's on me."
— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) May 8, 2016
Green likely saw that doubt in the closing minutes of the first quarter, when the Warriors led by as many as eight points on the strength of tremendous shooting from Klay Thompson. The less heralded Splash Brother put up 18 of his eventual 35 points in the opening period on seven field goals and four three-pointers, seeking out his shot in an impressive show of aggression.
Lillard put up 11 in the period to keep the Blazers relatively close, but the rest of the team struggled to 3-of-16 shooting to put the Warriors up 28-22 at the break.
Whatever tentativeness Portland exhibited early disappeared in the second quarter. A Golden State lineup with Ian Clark and Leandro Barbosa in the backcourt allowed enough defensively to tie the game within 2:30, after which the Blazers dominated to take the period 36-18. The dynamics of Game 3 changed entirely in those opening minutes, and the Blazers never really looked back on their way to the win.
The Warriors struggled to give the Blazers a serious scare thereafter largely because of their defensive issues, but also because their role players looked lost offensively. Wing Harrison Barnes shot 2-of-8 from the field in a showing that barely registered, Andre Iguodala scored a single point on 0-of-5 from the field in 30 minutes, and Shaun Livingston failed to exploit his height advantage for the first time in the series for five points on four attempts.
The majority of the Warriors' second-half offense came from an unfamiliar source — the outside shooting of Green. The do-everything forward ended up with a career-high 37 points on a career-high eight three-pointers. Portland seemed content to give up many of these shots — Green is more facilitator than gunner — but he made them in a shooting display that felt more like a demonstration of his will than of perimeter talent.
Green's scoring would have appeared more heroic if the Warriors had managed to stop up their defensive effort in the fourth quarter as they did in Game 2. With Lillard and others making big shot after big shot, there was little doubt that the Blazers would end up with the win. They went up by as many as 20 and never saw the margin dip below 11 points in a tremendously impressive victory.
It's safe to expect better defense from the Warriors in Monday's Game 4, but that doesn't mean the tenor of this game won't carry over to the next one. The Blazers are plenty capable of winning multiple games on mostly contested shots, particularly when Lillard and McCollum play at or near their best.
Then again, that challenge will be a lot easier for Portland if Stephen Curry doesn't suit up for Game 4. A back-to-back MVP is a hell of an x-factor whether or not he's in peak form, especially when Curry's mere presence warps defenses unlike any other player in the league. The Blazers have new life in this series, but they could be one announcement from a harsher reality.
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