The Golden State Warriors have performed quite well without the injured Stephen Curry this postseason, but it's fairly apparent that success comes more difficultly when the NBA MVP isn't on the floor. The Curry-less Warriors are a different beast — they don't make or take as many three-pointers, run the offense a little more deliberately, and rely more heavily on their defense. It's not always as fun as watching Curry score 20 in a quarter, but this style works pretty well.
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The fourth quarter of Tuesday's Western Conference semifinals Game 2 vs. the Portland Trail Blazers showed that this no-Steph version of the Warriors can even look like a title contender. After not holding a lead for the first 42 minutes (and change), Golden State steamrolled Portland in crunch-time for a come-from-behind win that ended up with a final score that looks like a comfortable victory for a team up 2-0.
Down 91-82 entering the final nine minutes, the Warriors closed on an overwhelming 28-6 run (up until a meaningless Blazers bucket late) to pick up a very impressive 110-99 win.
The Warriors will head north for Saturday's Game 3 with a 2-0 lead and the hope that Curry can return from his MCL sprain. Even if he doesn't, the Warriors look in good shape in this series.
Late-game excellence has been a constant for Golden State in this historic season, but Game 2's winning run was perhaps most impressive for the fact that Portland had looked ready to hold on for a series-tying victory. The Warriors had gone on several runs previously to cut the margin to as few as three points, but the Blazers had answered with several big shots to keep them from changing the game too much. That was particularly the case in the third quarter, when star Damian Lillard diced up the Warriors in the pick-and-roll (particularly when Andrew Bogut was slow to step out to challenge jumpers) to score 17 points in the period. The final three came on a big buzzer-beater that built the lead back up to 87-76 entering the fourth.
The momentum began to swing in the Warriors' favor when Steve Kerr lifted Bogut in favor of Festus Ezeli, a less accomplished but more mobile defensive center. Ezeli had played just eight postseason minutes prior to his 13 on Tuesday, but he proved vital in covering Lillard in pick-and-roll situations after Bogut had struggled. For that matter, Ezeli protected the rim ably and added scoring at the other end, taking and making all four of his shot attempts in the opening four minutes of the quarter. His last bucket was just the first for the Warriors in their 28-6 run, but his impact affected the game well before then.
The improvement in covering Lillard and C.J. McCollum was a team-wide effort, with every player doing some part to limit Portland's stars. The most impressive outcome wasn't that Lillard went scoreless in the fourth — it was that he took only three shots after a quarter in which he was clearly the best player on the floor. The Warriors stifled every ideal option for the Blazers to a point where a seeming majority of possessions ended in the hands of Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu, quality role players whose decision-making and playmaking skills can't match an elite defensive effort. Many attempts ended up stonewalled at the rim by a team not known for its shot-blocking ability.
That defensive dominance set the stage for much-improved offensive execution. No player dominated the proceedings, with contributions coming from Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, and Harrison Barnes. But the biggest turnaround came from Klay Thompson, who bounced back from a 3-of-11 start beyond the arc to make two of his last three attempts for 10 fourth-quarter points.
It was a complete performance worthy of a championship-caliber squad. The per-100-possession offensive stats tell the story:
Offensive ratings in the last nine minutes of Game 2:
Golden State 155.6
— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 4, 2016
That's a differential of more than 100 points per 100 possessions. That's just silly.
Lillard and the Blazers were understandably upset about their play late:
Damian Lillard: "I think nights like tonight, they suck."
— Diamond Leung (@diamond83) May 4, 2016
When the immediate shock of the loss is over, they'll at least be able to find some positives in their performance through the first three quarters. Portland's early energy was terrific, with McCollum and Aminu combining for 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting in the first quarter to get out to a 34-21 lead. Their fortunes began to change in a second quarter that saw the Warriors take control by going small, but the Blazers continued their quality shot-making to go 7-of-14 from beyond the arc in the first half. Not every look was a good one, but many of the Blazers best players beat strong defense all season. More generally, the Blazers looked like the must quicker team — they stretched a step-slow Warriors unit on many possessions and went into the break as the more active and resolute squad.
If the Warriors didn't quite appear on their way to a loss, it's because they've proven their late-game excellence enough times this season for everyone watching to maintain the faith. They repaid that trust in a big way on Tuesday.
Yet the Blazers will keep their own hope alive, particularly after going down 2-0 to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round and winning the next four. Of course, the difference here is that the Warriors aren't about to lose their best player to injury ... because he's already been out. If Curry comes back for Game 3 or 4 at even half his usual quality, he could give the Warriors an advantage even greater than the one they currently hold. The Blazers will try to treat that possibility as immaterial to their own need to play well, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
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