OAKLAND, Calif. -- Damian Lillard's baritone voice was raw and scratchy as he explained the importance of making life more difficult for the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Coming off three games in three cities over a 96-hour period, in addition to celebrating his grandfather's 80th birthday with his family in Oakland, Lillard has been a busy man. At some point during that whirlwind, he came down with a chest cold, and it's unknown whether it's one of those "it sounds worse than it is" maladies. Against the Warriors, you can never quite tell how much of the sickness is virulent and how much of it is just dispiriting.
"At this point, we're just trying to fix things and make sure that our season keeps going," Lillard said.
Tests on the Trail Blazers' 118-106 loss to the Warriors in their conference semifinals series opener reveal a range of symptoms that add up to very bad news for Portland. Though the Trail Blazers acquitted themselves last week in closing out a short-handed Los Angeles Clippers squad in the first round, the Warriors -- with or without Stephen Curry -- present an expanded collection of complications.
For one, the Warriors on Sunday afternoon exposed a harsh reality the Trail Blazers can't change but merely compensate for: They're a small NBA team. In Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Portland features two dynamic ballhandling guards, neither of whom are taller than 6-foot-4. Their forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless would each be classified as a small forward not so many years ago. And their nominal center, Mason Plumlee, isn't so much an interior presence as a "mobile big."
In the modern NBA, this configuration isn't so much a problem, and in the case of Portland it's an effective way to maximize space and speed. This dynamic won the Trail Blazers 44 games in what was to be a rebuilding season, but herein lies the trouble: Golden State preys on an opponent's weaknesses and its strengths. And the Warriors possess the ability to throw four starters at least 6-7 on the floor with one of the league's premier rim protectors.
"There are guys who can guard multiple positions and are the same size," Trail Blazers swingman Gerald Henderson said. "That's something you have to battle against. At the rim, they're not as good as maybe the Clippers are with [DeAndre] Jordan there, but they're always there, regardless if it's a big guy or not. Someone is always there to protect the basket and make you make a difficult shot or make a pass. We have to be cognizant of that."
Case in point, when Warriors center Andrew Bogut or multipositional Swiss Army knife Draymond Green were the primary defenders in Game 1, the Trail Blazers shot just 6-for-27 from the field, according to ESPN Stats & Information. For a team like the Trail Blazers that relies on screens for its guards against a team like the Warriors that isn't timid in switching its big guys onto those guards, it's problematic.
"They're smart," Henderson said. "Whenever we try to run Bogut up there, he's always switching on the smaller guy. They're smart. They've seen it before. We're not the only team that's tried to attack them that way. It's a chess game."
Though the Trail Blazers were denied at the rim time and again, the size of the Warriors' backcourt might have been just as imposing as anything they saw at the rim. While he deflected any praise -- "It's not just me; our bigs did a phenomenal job today on the ball screen" -- Klay Thompson smothered Lillard, who hit only 2-of-13 shots when Thompson was his primary defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Likewise, Shaun Livingston's long limbs worked as trip wires against McCollum, and the Trail Blazers had trouble threading needles and finding angles in many of their second-sided actions in the half court.
And if challenging pick-and-roll coverage is chess, then rebounding is checkers, and here the Trail Blazers simply were dominated. The Warriors recovered 11 of their 25 misses before intermission, getting points even when they were stymied.
"We have to find shooters and prevent those second-chance [points]," McCollum said. "In the first half, they had 13 or 14 second-chance points. It's already hard enough to guard them in the 24-second shot clock. You can't give them those ample opportunities."
Old-school bully-ball also showcased Portland's undersized guards, whether it was Green backing in McCollum or Henderson, or Livingston driving his shoulder into Lillard's chest. Golden State's wings plus Green ran 10 post-ups (Bogut and Marreese Speights had zero), and the Warriors generated three buckets (including one and-1), four fouls and one turnover, per Synergy Sports.
While size is a distinct advantage for the Warriors, their overall playmaking might be even more of one. In the Trail Blazers' last series against the Clippers, Plumlee was encouraged to play the role of Green -- the consummate playmaking big out of the pick-and-roll. On Sunday, there was no substitute for the real thing. When Plumlee got caught up top guarding Thompson early in the first quarter, Green led his big guard go back door with a little drop pass against a Portland defense without rim protection. And when the cross-matches left the Portland transition defense scrambling, Green orchestrated Golden State's break.
"It's tough," McCollum said. "They do a good job of moving the ball. They're very unselfish."
Aminu and Harkless have made tremendous strides, but they have neither the finesse nor experience at this point in their young careers to serve as the fulcrum of the offense when Lillard and McCollum don't have it going. While Plumlee performed beautifully in a facilitator role against the Clippers, he hasn't yet developed the telepathy Bogut has with his crew -- witness the backdoor cut in the first quarter to collect a lob from Livingston off a back screen from Thompson.
Meanwhile, Thompson has four inches on McCollum and the choreography of the Warriors' half-court offense finds him all the space he needs. McCollum made specific mention of Golden State's guard-to-guard screens on pin-down sets that release Thompson for shots.
Watching Portland compete but never get within shouting distance of a Golden State team underscored just how massive its challenge. Success for an NBA team had traditionally required either size or finesse, versatility or specialism. Golden State boasts all of the above, with Curry or without.