OAKLAND, Calif. -- The NBA might be the most predictable of leagues, but the playoffs at least have a way of interrupting assumptions and casting some doubt. After the Golden State Warriors casually dispatched the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series, many were jumping ahead to the next series. When would Stephen Curry return? Does he even need to? The Warriors' 110-99 win on Tuesday suggests an easy victory. But the score belies the story.
"Game 2s always scare me, especially if you won the first one relatively easily like we did," coach Steve Kerr said after the game. "It just happens. It's human nature. The other team comes out angry, maybe you let your guard down a little bit, even though you're aware of the circumstances."
And angry did the Blazers come out.
An early blast of Portland offense and subsequent 17-point lead was a reminder that, yes, the Blazers are a talented, dangerous basketball team. Aided by some sloppy Warriors transition defense, Portland attacked them the way the Warriors blitz so many opponents.
The Warriors had a response, though, initially in the form of Draymond Green at center. It might be the move for which Portland has no counter. Andrew Bogut is a fantastic defensive center, but when he is manning the middle, Damian Lillard finds daylight on the deep, off-the-dribble shots he has honed. Green at the 5 position mostly takes this option away, thanks to his ability to switch and show. Perhaps more significant, it allows the Warriors to push and run at Portland's weak rim protection. In the second quarter, that lineup carried Golden State back into the game.
The Blazers held the Warriors at bay for much of the second half, with Bogut ceding looks to Lillard on the high pick-and-roll. The Warriors do have another athletic big man who theoretically can run out to the 3-point line, and Kerr finally returned to him. Enter Festus Ezeli, who did not play Sunday, but he might well have disrupted Tuesday's outcome.
"[Ezeli] changed the whole game with his pick-and-roll defense and his presence around the rim," Kerr said. "The energy he gave us. He played 13 straight minutes. This is a guy who has been out most of the last part of the season and didn't play much in the Houston series. So phenomenal effort from Fez to really change the game."
Ezeli showed little rust on offense and energetically challenged above the arc on defense. It helped that Klay Thompson broke an extended cold stretch at 6:34, when he tied the score on a Curry-style pump-fake, fly-by 3-pointer. At 5:33, Thompson grabbed the lead with another 3.
"I thought of how focused we were in that fourth," Thompson said. "We'd been down and out before, and we weren't playing with that good of poise in the first three quarters. And in that fourth quarter we weren't hunting for shots and playing stingy defense, and we were just locked in on both sides of the ball."
Golden State squeezed Portland, and in so doing compensated for all of its first-half defensive sins. The Green-at-center look closed out a quarter in which the Blazers scored a meager 12 points. In the final 5:40, Portland managed one field goal, a bucket that came after the game was already in hand.
"Our defense was so great there at the end," Thompson said. "If we had that the rest of the playoffs, I think it's going to be great."
While the Warriors initially looked vulnerable without their most familiar face, they returned to familiar form. They can lose for the vast majority of a game before suddenly, viciously seizing it by the throat.