HOUSTON — The Trail Blazers and Rockets was the last playoff series to get underway. And after watching so many road teams go on to win their respective Game 1s, some of the Trail Blazers noted that it made the possibility of stealing home court advantage seem that much more possible. Damian Lillard said it the upsets made it seem like “it can happen for us” while LaMarcus Aldridge said that maybe it “helps your mental psyche.”
Of course, the Trail Blazers went on to win Game 1 in Houston, though it’s impossible to tell if seeing other underdogs do the same thing played even a small role in their overtime victory.
Nevertheless, they’re still paying attention, though this time, it’s for the opposite reason. As in, after the Warriors beat the Clippers in Los Angeles in Game 1, the Clippers came back in Game 2 to blow out the Warriors by 40. Same goes for the Hawks/Pacers series in which Atlanta stole the first game, only to lose by 16 in Game 2.
“Those are great examples of how the previous game really sets the tone for the next game,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts Tuesday on the Jim Rome Show, “particularly for the team that lost.”
Portland’s coaching staff has used those games as a teachable moment, telling their team that any feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment from winning their first game on the road can disappear in an instant if you end up getting run out of the gym in Game 2.
“It’s to keeps you grounded and keeps you in the moment,” said Aldridge of what can be learned from other playoff teams in similar situations going into Game 2. “Golden State went into L.A. and won (Game 1) and they lost by 30 (in Game 2). It’s just to keep you locked in on how much work it took and how hard it’s going to be.”
Rockets Dwight Howard and James Harden have already declared Game 2 a “must-win” for Houston, so it’s not exactly as though the Trail Blazers needed other teams to remind them that their opponent will come out with a different level of intensity Wednesday night.
“Every guy here understands that you can win the first one and get too comfortable and not win again,” said Aldridge. “So we understand that we won the first one but it’s definitely not over with and we’ve got a lot more work to do.”
But then again, it never hurts to see the scenario play out in real life.
“I think everybody saw the games where a team goes on the road to win Game 1 and Game 2, the home team is locked in and they understand what’s at stake,” said Lillard. “They don’t want to lose that second game and they come out with fire and the other team just kind of hasn’t been ready for it.”
But there has been one team that was ready: the Washington Wizards. After beating the Bulls soundly as the road team in Game 1, Washington was able to follow up with another victory, albeit much closer this time, in Game 2 in Chicago. That series also provided a lesson for the Trail Blazers.
“You see that Washington comes out and they get it done again,” said Lillard. “It’s because of how steady they were. They were consistent defensively. It wasn’t a perfect game but they found a way to stick around and make timely plays, get timely stops. They brought that energy, most importantly. They stayed together and they was able to get it done two times on the road.
“We got a chance to see what not to do, what could get us blown out. And we saw what could give us a chance to come out and steal another game.”
But in the end, the Trail Blazers know their fate in Game 2 will not be defined by what other teams did on Monday or Tuesday but what they do Wednesday night in Houston.
“You can kind of look at it, but take it with a grain of salt,” said Wesley Matthews. “They’re not us. It’s not the same team, it’s not the same situation, it’s not the same battle. I know, being in the playoffs, that every game gets harder. Ever game is going to test something else. That’s how we’ve got to go on from the beginning.”
Even at full strength, the Trail Blazers were having a hard time keeping up with the Golden State Warriors in the first game of their second round, best-of-seven playoff series. But that task got significantly harder after reserve guard Gerald Henderson, who is averaging 7.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists in the 2016 postseason, was ejected after a series of altercations with Warriors center Anderson Varejao that occurred late in the third quarter of Portland’s 118-106 loss Sunday night at Oracle Arena.
The first incident took place at the 3:29 mark of the third. Henderson and Varejao collided during the run of play, sending Varejao tumbling to the floor. As he was falling, he seemed to extend his leg out in an effort to trip Henderson, which ultimately proved successful. Henderson immediately got off the floor and into Varejao’s face, prompting the officials to call assess technicals to both players.
“I bumped him — not on purpose — he tripped me on purpose,” said Henderson. “I fell hard, I didn’t like it, so came together, that’s what happens.”
But that wouldn’t be the end of the tete-a-tete between Henderson and Varejao. Though Varejao was on the bench, that didn’t stop him and Henderson from continuing their less than cordial discussion, which the officials apparently noticed, as both players were once again awarded technicals, resulting in double ejections.
“The ref threw me out from across the way. I guess he could hear what I was saying from across the court,” said Henderson. “We were talking since the first technicals happened, but there’s a lot of talking going on out there. For both of us to get kicked out of the game, it was surprising.”
Despite the tense moments, Henderson said postgame that there was no lingering animosity while noting that he was more mad at himself than at Varejao.
“I been put it behind me,” said Henderson, who finished with five points and three assists in just under 17 minutes. “We lost the game, that’s the only thing that matters. I was pissed I got thrown out, we still had a chance to win the game. I got ejected, I’ve got to be smarter, regardless of if I thought I should have got kicked out or not.”
OAKLAND — The Portland Trail Blazers had roughly 36 hours to prepare for Game One of their Western Conference Semifinals matchup versus the Golden State Warriors after eliminating the Clippers in Game Six at the Moda Center on Friday night. There was only so much film they could watch, only so many Warriors-specific plays they could learn before a 12:30 pm tipoff Sunday afternoon in Oakland.
That was a reality reflected in Portland’s performance to start the game, as they made just five field goals and trailed by as many as 20 in the first quarter before going on to lose 118-106 to the top-seeded Warriors in front of a sellout crowd of 19,596 at Oracle Arena.
“Certainly wasn’t the start we wanted,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “It was disappointing to get off to such a poor start. Our offense, we had trouble scoring. Their defense got into us. It was just — we struggled at both ends, and probably more so on the offensive end, which fed into their defense. They had second chance point, they had fast-break points. It was a little bit of everything.”
The Warriors now lead the series 1-0 with Game Two scheduled for Tuesday.
“To start the game, we played like a team playing it’s second game in 30 hours,” said CJ McCollum. “We can’t start like that, especially here.”
The good news is the Trail Blazers improved as the game went on. Portland shot 52 percent from the field an 67 percent from three in the second quarter, utilizing small lineups that featured Maurice Harkless at “center” to eventually outscore Golden State 34-28 in the quarter. The Trail Blazers managed to cut the Warriors’ lead to single digits on numerous occasions before the half but were never able to keep the deficit in check for more than a possession or two, allowing the home team to take a 14-point lead into the intermission.
The Warriors, playing without reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who is sidelined with a sprained right MCL, would reestablish their dominance in the third quarter, holding Portland to 9-of-27 shooting from the field and a particularly stingy 1-of-8 from three. Between their defense and shooting 50 percent from both the field and three in the quarter, Golden State took a 26-point lead, their largest of the night, before heading into the fourth up 93-73.
Portland was able to give the final score an air of respectability by outscoring Golden State 33-25 in the fourth, but never realistically threatened the defending champs before the final buzzer. And while there was little to like about their Game One performance, the Trail Blazers can take some comfort in knowing they were able to bounce back from a rough start in the first round to win their series versus the Clippers.
“We got beat pretty soundly in Game One against the Clippers and we made some adjustments, we played a little bit better and got better as the series went along, and we need to do the same thing,” said Stotts. “So we’ll watch the video, see what we can come up with for Game Two. But there’s no question that we have to play better and learn from Game One like we did with the Clippers.”
The Trail Blazers were led by Lillard, who finished with 30 points, five assists and four steals in 41 minutes. CJ McCollum added 12 points, three rebounds and three assists in 40 minutes. Portland’s starting backcourt combined to shoot 13-of-43 from the field, with many of those makes coming when the game was already out of reach.
“We’ve just got to be better,” said Lillard, who said he’s been battling a chest cold the last few days (and sounded like it when answer questions postgame). “I got some looks that I need to make, CJ did as well. We just got to be better offensively if we want to have a chance against this team.”
Al-Farouq Aminu shot 6-of-13 from the field and 3-of-8 from three for 15 points in 25 minutes. Harkless added 10 points and three rebounds, with Mason Plumlee grabbing a game-high 13 boards.
Allen Crabbe continued his strong play as of late, going 6-of-9 from the field for 15 points and five rebounds in 33 minutes. Ed Davis went 5-of-6 from the field to finish with 11 points and seven rebounds before fouling out in 18 minutes.
Gerald Henderson finished with five points and three rebounds in 16 minutes before being ejected after getting receiving two technicals for arguing with Warriors center Anderson Varejao, who was also ejected.
The Warriors were led by Klay Thompson, who shot 50 percent from both the field and three to finish with a game-high 37 points to go along with five rebounds in 37 minutes.
“We’ve got to do a better job, starting with me if I’m guarding (Thompson),” said McCollum. “Got to make sure I’m pacing better and making him curl. Hard hedges got to be there, especially if it’s Bogut or somebody setting setting that screen where he’s not really a good shooter. We’ve got to make sure we make them pay for that.”
Draymond Green put up a triple-double of 23 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists in 37 minutes. Shaun Livingston added 12 points and with both Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut finishing with 10 points.
Next up, the Trail Blazers will try to regroup before heading back to Oracle for Game Two on Tuesday.
“I got some looks that I usually would have made that I didn’t knock down,” said Lillard. “So next game, I look forward to the challenge again. At this point in the season, all that matters is winning. You either win or you lose; you advance or you go home. At this point, we’re just trying to fix things and make sure that our season keeps going.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 pm.
When the Trail Blazers take the court for Game One of their Western Conference semifinals versus the Warriors on Sunday, they’ll be doing so in one of the most hostile environments in the NBA. Golden State has been all but unbeatable at Oracle Arena in recent years, so much so that they set the NBA record for most consecutive home victories before dropping two games on their home court in the last two weeks of the regular season.
But while the vast majority of those in attendance for the Game One Sunday matinee will be rooting hard for the Warriors, there will be a small contingent of fans at Oracle doing whatever they can to will the Trail Blazers to victory. Some will be transplants from Oregon, others will make the sojourn to the bay area, likely paying exorbitant prices for tickets, in order to see their team play in the second round for just the second time in 16 years.
And there will be at least one more group making the short trip from the Brookfield neighborhood in Oakland to Oracle to see Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard face off against the team he grew up cheering for as a boy growing up in the east bay. Sunday afternoon’s game will be the first time the Trail Blazers and Warriors have ever met in the postseason, which also means it’s the first time Lillard will have a chance to play in front of his family and friends in a playoff game at Oracle.
“First of all, the opportunity to play against the best team in the league, that’s the thing I’m most excited about, having another challenge where people are going to say we don’t have a chance,” said Lillard, who graduated from Oakland High School, which sits roughly five miles from Oracle Arena, before playing his college ball at Weber State. “That’s the most fun part of it for me. And second, being able to play in front of my family and friends. Since college they haven’t been able to see me play a lot and to be able to come home and play on the highest stage against the best team in the league, there’s no greater feeling and I’m really excited about it.”
Which comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the 6-3 point guard. Lillard is incredibly proud of his hometown and takes every opportunity he can to remind people about the city that helped shape him into the man he is today. Be it the the tattoo of the Oakland Tree across his chest or insisting on having his neighborhood on the soles of his signature adidas sneaker, Lillard is all about repping where he’s from.
“Growing up in Oakland, it just made me tough,” Lillard told ESPN analyst Doris Burke. “You see a lot of things, you’re around a lot of things. You’ve got to be able to handle it. You’ve got to take it in stride. Everybody’s going through it, so you can’t feel sorry for yourself. If something bad happens you can’t be the guy that sticking out, uncomfortable. You’re raised there, it prepares you to survive anywhere. You can handle any moment.”
Which is good news if you’re a fan of Lillard and the Trail Blazers. While an NBA playoff game doesn’t pose anywhere close to the kind of life or death challenges that sometimes come along with growing up in a place like Oakland, the difficulties of trying to win a game against the defending champions on their home court, even without the services of reigning MVP Stephen Curry, who is sidelined with a minor knee injury, will be numerous. Winning a road game in the playoffs, as Portland will have to do sooner or later if they want to win the series, is always going to be hard, but doing so against one of the best teams in NBA history will be a vicissitude in excess of anything the Trail Blazers have experienced this season. Given that, it’s somewhat ironic that the toughness instilled in Lillard by way of growing up in Oakland could ultimately be what helps the Trail Blazers pull off the near-impossible task of besting the Warriors at home.
That would be just fine for those who might duck out of church a bit early Sunday morning in order to get to Oracle to cheer for their son, brother, grandson, cousin, uncle or friend from around the way as he attempts to take down their hometown team.
“Everybody is excited about what they’re doing, but everybody that I grew up with and people in my family, they Damian Lillard fans first, Warriors fans second,” said Lillard. “That’s just what it is.”