Warriors-Trail Blazers Preview
(AP) – First it was a chest cold, then it was a fourth-quarter dry spell. The start of Damian Lillard's playoff series against the Golden State Warriors has been rough.
And as Lillard goes, often his Trail Blazers teammates follow.
Portland is down 2-0 in its Western Conference semifinal series against the defending NBA champions. And it certainly won't get much easier when the series shifts north Saturday – even though presumptive league MVP Stephen Curry is unlikely to return from a knee injury.
Curry did work on the side while the Warriors practiced Thursday but couldn't yet do any of the scrimmaging that the medical staff and coaches want to see before he is cleared to return.
''It's tough to see him playing Saturday,'' coach Steve Kerr said. ''He's gotten better and better each day.''
In fact, Kerr said ''probably not'' when asked about Curry playing Saturday. Game 4 on Monday is still a conceivable option if Curry keeps making good progress.
That game won't mean as much if the Blazers don't win Game 3, but Lillard and his team have a history of stepping up after getting knocked down. In fact, that's been the theme of their whole season.
''I know the kind of guys I'm running with. Besides that, we've answered the call all season long. We've been in bad positions time and time again, and we've never shied away. We've never not answered the call. I don't see why this time it would be any different,'' he said.
Lillard, who averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists during the regular season, scored 25 points in the Blazers' 110-99 loss in Game 2 on Tuesday night, including 17 in the third quarter. But the Warriors held him scoreless in the crucial final period when they came from behind to win, outscoring Portland 34-12. The Blazers only scored six points over the last 5:21.
With a day off Wednesday, Lillard let the loss digest.
''After the game I was pretty frustrated by not being able to finish that game. Yesterday I didn't even want to see a basketball,'' he said. ''I wasn't even gonna watch the playoff game until I heard Cleveland was hitting a bunch of 3s. So I wanted to see for myself, but I didn't even want to have nothing to do with basketball after that game.''
In the series opener, Lillard started cold but eventually scored 30 points in a 118-106 loss. The Oakland native admitted later to battling a cold afterward. On Thursday, he said he was healthy.
A two-time All-Star, Lillard was snubbed this year. How did he respond? By dropping 51 points, including nine 3-pointers, in a 137-105 victory over – wait for it – the Warriors. Lillard shot over Curry at will in that Feb. 19 victory, one of just nine losses for Golden State in a record-setting 73-win season.
Knowing the Blazers are capable will be key Saturday night.
''We'll have bounce. We came back after 0-2 against the Clippers (in the opening round) and came with a lot of energy in Game 3. We know how important Game 3 is,'' Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. ''Having energy, having bounce, at the Moda Center, with our crowd? That's the least of our concerns.”
Lillard also struggled in the opening two games against the Clippers in the first round. Portland came back to win the next four to win the series, but the Clippers were hurt when top scorers Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were knocked out with injuries.
The Warriors also get credit for Lillard's struggles after making defensive adjustments on both Lillard and C.J. McCollum, particularly the play of Festus Ezeli.
''They are so explosive and they run really good stuff, I mean, it's hard to guard. You have to cover a lot of floor against Portland, and I thought between Festus and Draymond (Green), those guys did a great job of protecting the feed and moving and handling the pick-and-roll on top,'' Kerr said.
Ezeli came up big in Game 2, scoring eight points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking a shot in nearly 13 minutes after not even getting into Game 1.
''I'm always ready. I'm always prepared,'' Ezeli said. ''I brought energy to the team. Hopefully moving forward there's more situations where I'm needed. It takes a little while. The injury's behind me now. Every time I'm on the court, I'm just trying to get that momentum, I'm trying to get my rhythm back.”
Ezeli played in only 46 regular-season games, having undergone arthroscopic knee surgery Feb. 8 and not playing again until April 3.
On Tuesday, his contributions were clutch as the Warriors had to rally back from an early 17-point deficit and trailed 87-76 going into the fourth for their largest deficit all playoffs heading into the final 12 minutes.
Klay Thompson keyed the comeback with 10 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter and hit at least five 3-pointers for a fourth consecutive game. He scored 37 in Game 1 as he continues to step up in Curry's absence.
So has Green, averaging 20 points, 13.5 rebounds, 9 assists and 3.5 blocks in the series.