OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Golden State Warriors pulled away from the Portland Trail Blazers to win Game 1 121-109 after Draymond Green & Co. finally doused Portland’s offensive fireworks. Green was magnificent, claiming 19 points, 12 boards, nine assists, three steals and five blocks -- a line that might actually undersell his impact Sunday afternoon.
Green attacked the defensive end with unreal vigor, especially late in the game. He blocked two dunk attempts; one block broke up a 2-on-1 and the other was the result of a dead sprint across the court. The second one, a fourth-quarter swat of an attempted Damian Lillard tomahawk, sent Lillard tumbling to the floor, his highlight upended. Although it’s too late to submit Defensive Player of the Year clips, Green did much to showcase why many consider him the sport’s best defensive player.
The Blazers have not been given much of a shot in this series, which is one reason Lillard’s (cajoled) Portland-in-six prediction made waves. To Lillard, it doesn’t matter if few think Portland is near Golden State’s level. Well, it matters, but it won’t stop the Blazers from playing with immense confidence.
Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum gave the Warriors a rude early reminder that they are indeed facing a force to be reckoned with. The two combined for 48 points in the first half, the most they've ever scored together in a half. McCollum was especially impressive, as he hit shots from a variety of angles and against converging closeouts.
Meanwhile, the Warriors weren’t exactly sharp. Klay Thompson started somnambulistically, both offensively and defensively. Although Kevin Durant looked wholly healthy coming off his return to action, he lessened his aggression in the second quarter. Stephen Curry was 1-of-5 from beyond the arc in the first quarter and missed some open looks.
Yet the game was tied at the half. Perhaps, for all of Lillard’s confidence and for all of his and McCollum’s brilliance, this speaks to the gap between the teams as nothing else does. Blazers not named CJ or Damian went 3-for-16 with five turnovers in the first half.
The teams continued to exchange blows into the third quarter, when Curry awoke and Warriors center JaVale McGee changed the game. Curry’s run of drives and jumpers was perhaps expected; McGee’s galvanized third quarter was a less expected development, as many commentators throughout the season asserted that he wouldn’t see the floor come the postseason. The reality is that McGee, for all his pratfalls, changes the game when he’s on. That’s more than you can say for so many bench players.
“It started with the energy of JaVale there in that third quarter,” Green said after the game. “And though they made a run at the end to close it out, our energy transferred over. Then David [West] came in, and he was huge. He was huge on those ball screens. Damian couldn't get downhill anymore, CJ couldn't get downhill anymore, and we were able to get a grip, and then we went on a 15-2 run.”
The fourth quarter is when Golden State got its final burst of separation, when it fatally clamped down on Portland’s offense. Green had 10 points, three blocks and two steals in the quarter. In the game overall, the Blazers went 4-for-16 against Green as primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Green further explained how Golden State turned Portland’s water off: “CJ hit tough fadeaways and tough 3s over contested hands. But we knew at some point you have to make them miss. You can do all you want and say, 'Oh, man, I got a great contest, and he hit a tough shot,' but at some point, we have to make them miss.”
That’s a quote aspiring defensive superstars can take to heart. Yes, you theoretically can be content with teams taking certain kinds of contested shots. Yes, it’s a make-or-miss league, as the cliché goes, and some lucky shots can defeat good defense. But great defense, Draymond-level defense, is not so incidental to the outcome. By force of will, he chases players into shots that evoke a quarterback throwing the ball away to avoid pain. By reading the situation, he appears seemingly out of nowhere and kills the prettiest of plays.
Green’s brilliance put the Warriors up as they started the fourth quarter with their West-Thompson lineup, which allowed Durant to salt the game away with midrange jumpers over mismatches.
Make no mistake: Unless Jusuf Nurkic returns, the Blazers are in trouble. They might be confident but they’re undermanned, and they face a defensive player whose brashness is matched only by the extreme skill with which he dispatches the boldest scorers.