OAKLAND — Three courtside fans barely had time to help Stephen Curry up. He had to get back on defense. After hitting a 29-foot jumper with two defenders in his face, he’d fallen backwards into the first row. It was his second of back-to-back 3-pointers that turned what was a narrowing three-point Golden State lead into a nine-point advantage.
It’s the type of shot that, even five years into the Warriors’ epic run, still brings Oracle Arena to its feet. Over the last three seasons, Kevin Durant has been the unstoppable one, the universal offensive weapon, the undefendable scorer. Curry, though, has always been at the heart of Steve Kerr’s offense.
As the first half closed on Golden State’s 116-94 Western Conference Finals-opening win over the Portland Trailblazers, that shot gave Curry 54 points in his last four quarters. With the prospect of Durant’s prolonged absence looming, without the injured DeMarcus Cousins, it was Curry’s 36 points in 35 minutes, Klay Thompson’s timely shooting and a slew of bench performers who delivered a throwback performance in the opening game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
“It’s fun,” Curry said. “It’s when we’re at our best in terms of everybody feeling like they are a threat on the floor,” Curry said. ” … You see like the morale, like everybody’s shoulders are up and smiles, and just the aggressiveness all over the floor … it’s fun for everybody.”
From their earliest days together, Kerr’s Warriors — along with Curry’s 3-point wizardry and Thompson’s impeccable jumper — have also depended heavily on defense, especially in the playoffs. They hadn’t been very strong on that side of the ball this year, ranking 12th among 16 playoff teams with a 111.8 defensive efficiency rating — far from where the Warriors have been in years past: first in 2017-18, second in 2016-17, first in 2014-15.
In the first half, they held the Trail Blazers to 32.6% from the field — the lowest they’ve held an opponent in a half this postseason — and forced 13 turnovers. They held Damian Lillard to just two points in the third quarter. They held Portland as a team to 36.1% from the field on the game.
“This is kind of where the roster all started,” said Andrew Bogut, who was part of this regime’s first NBA title. “We felt confident coming into this series, even though KD’s out, and we can hopefully get him as much time and rest to be healthy down the track.”
It was a game so vintage that JaVale McGee — who spent last season with the Lakers — was in the house, as were Baron Davis and Leandro Barbosa. It was a win so 2014 that Curry rarely so much as had hands in his face. Guarded by bigs all night, he came off screens from Bogut, Draymond Green and Kevon Looney, going 9-of-15 from beyond the 3-point arc for his most triples in his postseason career, and tallying his fourth 30-point game of the postseason (34th in his career).
Not to say the team is better without Durant — it’s not — but without him on the floor, the ball moved — 30 assists on 42 field goals — and Curry, maligned for his sub-par 37.1% 3-point performance in the first two rounds of the playoffs (despite averaging 24.3 points per game), set the tone.
As Golden State rushed on offense in the early goings, Thompson and Curry combined for 11 of the Warriors’ first 13 points. Curry then got hot, finishing with 19 in the first half, while Thompson chipped in 11. By the end of the first half, Curry had as many 3-pointers (four) as he’d had in any of the previous 10 playoff games.
Curry hit four more 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes out of the break, as Golden State got up by as many as 17. After Portland cut that lead to nine, Curry, off a steal, worked a give-and-go with Looney for a dunk. Looney — who figured to to be the biggest minutes beneficiary of Durant’s right calf strain — was the biggest contributor off the bench, scoring six points with two offensive rebounds, three steals, a block and an assist.
Before the game, Kerr said that the bench would play a big role, and indeed, for the second straight game, they did. Midway through the second quarter, he’d played 11 different men.
Golden State’s bench scored 16 first-half points, led by seven in eight minutes from Jonas Jerebko, who hit a 3-pointer to put Golden State up by five after a massive block by Jordan Bell on CJ McCollum early in the second quarter. As the Trail Blazers closed the lead to six again in the fourth, Quinn Cook hit a three from the right corner, and then another from 28 feet out with 9:30 to go to swell the lead back to 11.
“They made it a six- or seven-point game to start the fourth,” Kerr said. “Portland made a really good run at the end of the third and our bench came in, did a fantrastic job getting us the lead back up to about 12 or so before we went back to our starters, so great job by our bench … The biggest thing is if we can buy some time for our starters to rest.”
The bench ultimately scored 36 points — the same as McCollum (17) and Lillard (19) combined — and Curry didn’t re-enter the game in the fourth quarter until there were fewer than seven minutes remaining. After getting the lead back to 16 with a bounce pass for an Andre Iguodala dunk, Curry picked up a defensive rebound and heaved a full-court chest pass to a sprinting Thompson, who threw down a one-handed dunk, then ran and body bumped Damian Jones, who moments later would play his first minutes — and score his first basket — since December after a torn pectoral.
“Steve told us a couple days ago, or yesterday, that, ‘Everybody be ready becasue this is a series that everyone could possibly play in,’” said Green. “… As we said earlier in the year, Damian adds something to this team that we don’t have, which is a lob threat … I wouldn’t be shocked if sometime in this series, he’s thrown out there for some real minutes.”
With Curry’s performance on Tuesday, if Jones can be a factor, and Durant returns in a timely fashion, Portland may be in for a short series.