Harkless: Blazers face 'must win' in Game 3 against Warriors

Harkless: Blazers face 'must win' in Game 3 against Warriors

OAKLAND, Calif. – As much as they tried to tell themselves it was only one game, and that the margin of defeat didn’t matter, the Trail Blazers in the aftermath of Wednesday’s Game 2 blowout at Golden State knew they had put themselves in a precarious position.

Saturday’s Game 3 in Portland?

“It’s a must win game, for sure,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We have to get that game. If we want a chance to win the series, we have to win Game 3.’’

As if playing perhaps the best team ever assembled wasn’t daunting enough, NBA history shows that in seven-game playoff series, teams that have gone up 2-0 have won nearly 94 percent of the time (262-18). 

“We’ve got to get this one,’’ Damian Lillard said of Game 3. “You don’t want to go home and drop this one and then, you know, even if you do win Game 4 you’re coming back here looking at elimination.’’

At the forefront of the Blazers’ preparation figures to be how to stop JaVale McGee from impacting the game so emphatically in his short spurts, while also bracing for what the law of averages says will be a breakout game from the struggling Klay Thompson.

McGee has hurt the Blazers with his rebounding and dunks off lobs – both of which seem to come at pivotal times that sway momentum back in the Warriors’ favor. In Game 2 he had 15 points and five rebounds in 13 minutes, hitting all seven of his shots.

His effectiveness has highlighted the Blazers’ inexperience and lack of depth at the center position. With centers Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis and Festus Ezeli injured, the Blazers have turned to Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard, who have been overwhelmed, and Al-Farouq Aminu, who has been physically overmatched.

 “We didn’t communicate the switches well, but it’s a challenge,’’ coach Terry Stotts said of McGee’s effectiveness. “When you have a guy like Steph or Klay coming off (a screen) you’ve got to get up and guard them and not let the big get behind you … we didn’t obviously cover it the way we wanted to.’’

If McGee’s impact has been unexpected, so too was the Warriors’ ease with Game 2 considering they played without Kevin Durant (calf), Shaun Livingston (finger, hand) and Matt Barnes (ankle).

What’s more, the Warriors enjoy the comforts of a two-game lead despite erratic performances from both Thompson and Curry, neither of which has been near the top of their game.

Thompson on Wednesday continued his series funk, going 6-for-17 with six turnovers. He is now 12-for-33 in the series with eight turnovers while Curry is 15-of-37 in the series with nine turnovers.

Still, with the exception of a second-quarter flurry by the Blazers, Game 2 was never close. Most of the Blazers starters watched for the final 10 minutes from the bench.

“That’s why it’s a series – points don’t carry over,’’ Harkless said. “Doesn’t matter how much we lost by – one or 50 – next game we start 0-0.’’

That will come Saturday in Portland, in a game the Blazers have already amplified to a must-win.

“That’s not pressure,’’ Harkless said of the must-win proclamation. “It’s basketball.’’

The Warriors are just too good -- for the Blazers and probably every other team

The Warriors are just too good -- for the Blazers and probably every other team

OAKLAND – In times like these for Trail Blazer fans it’s important to remember a few things. Such as:

  • Portland isn’t in the Eastern Conference. That means the No. 8-seeded team in the conference doesn’t get to play arguably the worst top-seeded team in playoff history. Instead, it must play one of the best teams in NBA history.
  • Jusuf Nerkic isn’t playing right now. Do you remember your Trail Blazers this season before he showed up? Yes, they looked a lot like what you saw in Game 2 of the playoff series Wednesday night – a 110-81 thrashing by the Golden State Warriors.
  • For as much as people talk about the Warriors’ potent offense, their defense is terrific, too. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 75 points in Game 1. Golden State wasn't going to let that happen again Wednesday. The starting guards totaled 23 Wednesday night, hitting just 9 of 34 shots.
  • The Blazers made only 30 of their 90 shots from the field, including only 7 of 34 from three-point range. And they turned the ball over 18 times. It really doesn’t get much better than that. Part of that is a continuation of the Trail Blazers' offensive stagnation but a lot of it was the Golden State defense.
  • The series moves back to Moda Center for a game Saturday night and another one Monday night. And as Damian Lillard pointed out, “It’s a series. The points don’t carry over.”
  • Or as Draymond Green said, “One thing we know is that it’s just one game… They’re still going to come out in Game 3 and give all they’ve got, whether we have K.D. or not.”
  • Yes, Kevin Durant did not play. No, it didn’t make much difference. These guys, in case you didn’t notice, are good. REAL good.

Will Nurkic play in Game 3? I have no idea. But trust me, the decision to play him won’t be based on how the series stands. It will be dependent on the condition of the break in his leg. If he can play without any further ramifications, I’d expect him to do so. But if there’s any problem there, he’ll sit – just as he has so far. And that's the way it should be. The big thing about Nurkic is his long-term future as a Trail Blazer franchise center. There's no point in risking that in a series his team can't win, anyway.

Folks, he will make a difference if he plays. I still think the Blazers, with him in the lineup, are capable of stealing a home game somehow. But make no mistake, he’s not going to turn this series around. The Warriors are too good right now.

Very probably too good for any team in the league.

Game 2 gets away from Blazers amid avalanche of turnovers, missed shots

Game 2 gets away from Blazers amid avalanche of turnovers, missed shots

OAKLAND, Calif. – The Trail Blazers had a great three-minute opening to Game 2.

Then the rest of the game happened.

Golden State took a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven playoff series in commanding fashion Wednesday, using a 20-2 run in the first quarter and a 21-6 spurt to begin the second half that led to a 110-81 victory at Oracle Arena.

Teams in the NBA playoffs with 2-0 leads are 364-24 (.938) all-time and 262-18 in best-of-seven series.

Game 3 is Saturday in Portland.

Neither CJ McCollum nor Damian Lillard could replicate their Game 1 excellence and the Blazers as a whole were sloppy (19 turnovers) and generally off (33.3 percent shooting) as Golden State beat Portland for the 12th consecutive time.

After scoring 41 points in Game 1, McCollum missed his first five shots and finished with 11 points in 4-of-17 shooting. Lillard, who had 34 in Game 1, made four of his first five shots then made only one of his next 12 shots, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting.

Portland led 9-4 in the first three minutes as Lillard made three driving baskets, but Golden State answered with a 20-2 run that was fueled by some shoddy passing from McCollum and Evan Turner and some close-range misses, as Lillard, McCollum and Maurice Harkless all missed layins.

The only Portland threat came in the second, when the Blazers trimmed their 33-17 first-quarter deficit to 43-42 behind the play-making of Turner and the scoring of Harkless. Turner had six assists in the second and Harkless 10 of his 15 points, but the Warriors closed the half on a 12-4 run to lead 55-46 at the break.

In the third, Portland was held to 12 points, the lowest by a Golden State playoff opponent in the shot-clock era, and by 10:24 in the fourth it was 89-60 and Stotts had taken out his starters and replaced them with Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard.

Golden State entered the game worried about its depth after star Kevin Durant (calf), backup point guard Shaun Livingston (finger, hand) and reserve Matt Barnes (ankle) all were ruled out.

But behind a game-changing 13 minutes from reserve center JaVale McGee (15 points, five rebounds) and another all-around game from Draymond Green (six points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists), the Warriors got by without Durant and off-nights from Stephen Curry (6-of-18, 19 points) and Klay Thompson (6-of-17, 16 points).

Harkless led the Blazers with 15 points, all in the first half, and Lillard (12) and McCollum (11) were the only other Portland players in double figures. Allen Crabbe, who guaranteed a better Game 2 after going 1-for-5 with three points in Game 1, went 3-for-10 and missed all five of his three-point attempts.

Podcast:

Nurkic still out... and here's how he could have made a difference

Nurkic still out... and here's how he could have made a difference

OAKLAND -- Jusuf Nurkic Tuesday put an end to any mystery about his availability for Game 2 of Portland's first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors.

He's not playing Wednesday night. He didn't feel ready for it, he said before the team's practice. And, in fact, he was not going to practice Tuesday, either. The video of the interview accompanies this post but as you will hear, he's doing better. And he's also not ready to make any predictions about his appearance in future games.

But he did say he's had a full practice -- and a contact practice, at that.

So there you go. That's about all anyone knows about the situation.

How will it go Wednesday night without him?

Not well, I'd expect. After the first game of the series -- a 121-109 Warrior win Sunday afternoon -- it was obvious how the seven-foot center could help Portland attack Golden State at both ends of the court. His presence at the offensive end would probably force the Warriors into using centers Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee more minutes, something they don't want to do. Pachulia played just 12:28 in Game 1 and McGee played 9:41. Golden State prefers its small lineup, which usually features defensive wizard Draymond Green in the middle.

Now THAT would be an interesting matchup. Green has had success against true centers but Nurkic would be a handful for him. And at least he'd be enough of a threat that he'd keep Green from wandering around blocking shots from the rest of the Trail Blazers.

On defense, Nurkic would provide rim protection that Portland didn't have Sunday. Golden State's 44 points in the paint Sunday was not a huge number, but the Warriors made 22 of their 33 shots in that area and it would help if that percentage came down.

But we won't know, at least for at least one more game, what the Nurkic Effect would be. Or maybe we won't find out during this series at all. Nurkic provided no real clues about the future on Tuesday.

 

Allen Crabbe makes a Game 2 guarantee: He will play better

Allen Crabbe makes a Game 2 guarantee: He will play better

SAN FRANCISCO – Allen Crabbe has a Game 2 guarantee.

After a nondescript 22-minute performance in Game 1, during which he had three points on 1-for-5 shooting, the Trail Blazers’ wing says he will be more aggressive and be more of a factor in Wednesday’s Game 2 against Golden State.

“I understand how important it is for me to come off the bench and bring something to the table,’’ Crabbe said.  “Game 2 for me, I know is definitely not going to be like Game 1. I can guarantee that.’’

One of the lingering questions out of the Trail Blazers’ 121-109 loss to Golden State in Game 1 was who could provide some production outside of  Blazers’ stars CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.

Crabbe, who in the regular season was the Blazers’ fourth leading scorer behind Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, believes that production could come from him.

He says the game plan doesn’t need to change, and coach Terry Stotts doesn’t need to call plays differently. He says it all starts with his mindset.

“It’s me,’’ Crabbe said. “I have to take things into my own hands and be aggressive and go get shots.’’

If you feel like you’ve heard or read this from Crabbe before, you are right.

Much of this season, Crabbe has been battling consistency, a problem that for him is rooted in his aggression. When he shoots, he is productive. When he doesn’t, he becomes anonymous.

The value of an aggressive Crabbe has become obvious this season. When he shoots 10 or more shots, the Blazers are 18-9 (.667 winning percentage). When he scores in double figures they are 25-16 (.609 winning percentage).

“I know a lot of people are saying, like,  ‘You scored this one night, then you go back to scoring this’… well, I feel like it’s me being just having to be in tune with the game and not feeling out the game,’’ Crabbe said.

Crabbe said that Blazers captain Damian Lillard in Game 1 was again in his ear, both on the court and from the sideline. Throughout the season, Lillard has repeatedly told the media that he tells Crabbe to shoot it every time he touches the ball.

“During Game 1, he was like ‘Shoot the ball’ and even when he was on the bench, he was telling me ‘be aggressive, be aggressive,’’’ Crabbe said. “He tells me when I’m aggressive like that it helps the team more and it helps him. And I know I can’t just be out there on the court and not doing anything.’’

Crabbe says he can’t make the mistake of letting the game come to him.

“I can’t wait for certain moments to be aggressive,’’ Crabbe said. “I have to come out and when I step on the floor look for ways to put some points up.’’

He said maybe that means instead of waiting in the corner for a three he goes and sets a pick instead of the power forward or center. Or maybe he cuts to the basket more often and tries to get an easy score.

“I just can’t wait. I can’t wait to feel out a game. I just have to go in with the mindset of getting them up early. The more and more I get the shots up, the more I will be able to produce,’’ Crabbe said.

Stotts on Tuesday was quick to defend Crabbe, noting that it was his first action in 10 days after missing the Blazers’ final three regular season games resting his sore left foot.

“We need him, that’s obvious,’’ Stotts said. “But just because he had one rusty game coming back off injury is a little early for that narrative, to be honest. But yeah, he’s a big part of what we need.’’

In Game 1, McCollum had 41 points and Lillard 34. But the rest of the Blazers went 12-for-39 from the field.

Stotts said the key will be getting production not just out of Crabbe, but also Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless. Aminu went 0-for-5 and Harkless 5-for-13.

Last season, Crabbe had a slow start in the playoffs. In the first three games against the Clippers he went for six points, zero points and zero points before going 5-for-5 in Game 4. After that, his last eight playoff games he went 36-of-61 from the field (59 percent) and 15-for-30 from 3-point range.

Whether his mental reset for Game 2 sparks a change figures to be central to the Blazers’ chances of scoring an upset.

“I’m pretty sure for Game 2 there will be a different story,’’ Crabbe said. 

The problem for the Blazers wasn't Warrior offense, it was the world's tallest free safety

The problem for the Blazers wasn't Warrior offense, it was the world's tallest free safety

OAKLAND -- Sometimes, you swear the Golden State Warriors are playing with six defenders against their opponent's five offensive players.

Draymond Green makes it look that way.

At 6-7, Green is capable of defending every position on the floor. He's listed as a forward but against the Trail Blazers Sunday afternoon it seemed as if he was the world's tallest free safety. Or goalie. Whenever the Blazers got into the basket area in the fourth quarter, he was lurking nearby -- ready to smother jump shots or dunks. His timing is amazing and his instincts are even better. There's nobody else in the game like him and he hurt the Trail Blazers down the stretch of their 121-109 loss to the Warriors. Portland was outscored 33-21 in the fourth quarter after running up 27, 29 and 32 points in the three previous quarters.

What happened? Well, the best way I can explain it is to point you toward this video from BBall Breakdown. It clearly shows what was going on in key stretches of the game at the Portland end of the court. Green was leaving Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu wide open when he was matched up with them. Those two players, often positioned in the corner behind the three-point line, combined to go 1-7 from long distance. Green obviously had no respect for them and I'd also say the two Portland forwards frequently didn't even get the ball when they were open.

When Green has the freedom to leave his own man and help out on everybody else he's trouble. Make that TROUBLE. He blocked five shots in the game and affected a few more. He snuffed dunks from Damian Lillard and Noah Vonleh and those plays were momentum busters for Portland and momentum builders for the Warriors. In spite of all the points scored, the Blazers defended adequately -- given the opposition. But to beat this team, you have to score big and Green just wasn't going to let that happen.

Portland is going to have to find somebody hitting enough shots to occupy Green or it's going to be a very short series. Which it may be, anyway. Obviously, Jusuf Nurkic would help. But who knows when or if he'll play? In the meantime, a big shooting night is needed by Harkless, Aminu or anyone else playing forward for the Trail Blazers.

And looking to the future, there is no doubt that the biggest remaining role to fill on this team is a deadly three-point shooter at one -- or even both -- of the forward spots.

 

CJ McCollum after Game 1 loss to Warriors: 'We are right there. They know we are coming.'

CJ McCollum after Game 1 loss to Warriors: 'We are right there. They know we are coming.'

OAKLAND, Calif. – After all the back-and-forth of Sunday’s Game 1 – the 22 lead changes, the verbal exchanges, and ultimately a 121-109 victory by Golden State – Trail Blazers guard CJ MCollum took solace in one thing:

The Trail Blazers have announced their presence in this series.

“We are right there,’’ McCollum told CSNNW. “They know we are coming.’’

Golden State seized a 1-0 lead on the Blazers in an entertaining and competitive opener on Easter, but for the Warriors it wasn’t without some uneasy moments and some issues that will linger into Wednesday’s Game 2.

Portland’s dynamic duo of McCollum (41 points) and Damian Lillard (34 points) had the Warriors scrambling defensively, and if not for a heroic defensive performance by Draymond Green and another uncanny dagger administered by Ian Clark, who knows what kind of David vs. Goliath storylines would be developing out of Game 1.

“If it was to me, it's the perfect way to win Game 1,’’ Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “You get a real taste for what you’re up against. You take a really good punch from your opponent, you see how good they are, but you’re able to overcome everything and still get the win.’’

As both teams head to their bunkers to prepare for Wednesday’s Game 2, they do so with different questions. Golden State has to wonder if they can stop McCollum and Lillard, while Portland will be left wondering if its supporting cast is capable of getting them over the hump.

Kerr said the focus will be on preventing Lillard and McCollum from getting to areas they want.

“They made some tough shots, but they also got to their spots,’’ Kerr said. “We’re trying to keep them from getting into their comfort zones, and they seemed to get there with ease in the first half. We did a better job in the second half, but we have to understand that’s how this series is going to go. Hopefully, they don’t get 75 points between them in Game 2, but they might. That’s how good they are. So we’ve just got to keep trying to make it hard on them and do the best we can.’’

The Blazers, meanwhile, got little to no offensive help outside of  Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner, a surprise starter, had 12 points and hit 2-of-3 three-pointers, and Maurice Harkless had 11 points, but in total, the Blazers sans the starting backcourt shot 12-of-39 (30.8 percent).

Nobly, Lillard absorbed responsibility to get more of his teammates involved when looking ahead to the rest of the series.

“It’s a matter of us two making more plays – hitting guys on the weak side and giving them more opportunity,’’ Lillard said. “I think to beat the Warriors we’re going to have to maybe make that extra pass more often and be able to depend on guys more often to allow them to have that type of success.’’

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Portland went through a similar experience last season against Golden State in the playoffs. The Blazers led for 56.1 percent of the series, and held double-digit leads in the final four games, yet still lost 4-1.

Sunday was no different.

 “I thought we had it,’’ Harkless said. “But then that 15-2 run …”

The Blazers were tied heading into the fourth quarter before the Warriors went on a game-clinching 15-2 run that was spearheaded by some momentum-changing blocks by Green and another near-perfect performance from Clark.

Green had three of his five blocks in the fourth quarter, the biggest a rejection of Lillard who was heading for a driving dunk to cut the lead to 107-101. Instead, Green sprinted from the weakside and met Lillard head on.

With Green orchestrating to the crowd for more noise, Golden State transitioned up the court and Kevin Durant provided the final crescendo with a perfect jump shot that put the Warriors up 109-99.

It was the latest example of how much Green means to the Warriors and probably the best snapshot of why Green is a leading candidate for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

“He played a game that I’m not sure anybody else in the league is capable of, honestly,’’ Kerr said. “Who else can do what Draymond just did tonight? He’s so unique and so important to us. He was phenomenal.’’

While Portland will be searching for any of its role players to step to the forefront, Golden State knows if its playing Portland, that almost certainly means a big night from Clark, the fourth-year guard from Belmont.

Clark on Sunday hit 4-of-5 shots and finished with 12 points – seven of them coming in the decisive fourth quarter run. For the season, Clark averaged 4.5 points on 45 percent shooting and 36 percent three-point shooting, but in five games against the Blazers this season he is averaging 12.8 points while shooting a staggering 23-of-30 from the field and 9-of-13 from three-point range.

Portland figures to turn to Allen Crabbe or Al-Farouq Aminu for some help off the bench after both had forgettable performances. Crabbe, in his first game back since missing three games resting a sore left foot, went 1-for-5 and scored three points in 22 minutes while Aminu missed all five of his shots.

“I definitely wanted to provide a little more, but it’s Game 1,’’ Crabbe said. “I just need to find ways to get myself going early.’’

Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who shuffled his starting lineup by moving Noah Vonleh to center, inserting Turner to small forward and shifting Harkless to power forward, said its imperative the Blazers get more production outside of Lillard and McCollum.

“It’s going to take a team to beat them,’’ Stotts said. “Damian and CJ are talented scorers and they both had great offensive nights … but we need everybody. Guys have to be ready to make shots.’’

On Sunday, those shots in the game seldom fell.

But McCollum suggested a bigger shot might have been volleyed.

The Blazers are coming, he says, and the Warriors know it.

Lillard, McCollum took a lot of shots -- but when you're the only guys making them...

Lillard, McCollum took a lot of shots -- but when you're the only guys making them...

OAKLAND – And so you see now, if you didn’t already know, how difficult it’s going to be to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA playoffs.

The Trail Blazers – at least their two best players – gave it a heck of a shot Sunday afternoon in Oracle Arena. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 75 points while hitting 7 of their 15 three-point field goal attempts.

But they got very little help.

Portland got nine points off its bench and just 25 from its starting front line. Sure, Lillard and McCollum took 54 of their team’s 93 shots – but you couldn’t blame them. Who else is going to make shots?

Take away the starting guards and the rest of the Trail Blazers made just 12 out of 39 shots from the field.

Of course, the Warrior defense had something to do with that. The closer Portland got to the basket the more difficult the shots became, thanks to 10 Golden State blocked shots, half of those from Draymond Green.

The Trail Blazers were tied at the half and tied at the end of three quarters but the roof finally caved in during the final period.

“Our fourth-quarter defense in particular changed the game,” Golden State Coach Steve Kerr said. “I like the way our guys responded in the second half.”

Portland Coach Terry Stotts agreed – to a point.

“They were very aggressive,” he said about the Warriors in the fourth quarter. “Obviously we didn’t shoot the ball well. We had six turnovers in the fourth. Draymond had an impact on the game at the rim and in the paint.

“They got more aggressive on the ball and the trapping pick and rolls a little bit more. So, I mean in a quarter if you have six turnovers and shoot 30 percent in the quarter, it’s going to be rough.

“It’s a credit to their defense and we’ve got to be able to handle that a little bit better.”

The game was officiated similarly to most playoff games over the years – by a different set of rules than the regular season. There was so much more contact allowed than what you can get away with over the 82 games. It was much rougher and more physical than the regular season.

That leads to all sorts of things and it certainly raises the temperature on the floor –- as do all the sideshow gyrations and chatter from Green.

McCollum, who led Portland with 41 points, couldn’t resist a little byplay with the Warriors’ do-it-all power forward after Green got rim-checked on a dunk attempt. McCollum apparently suggested to Green that he needs a little more work on his legs to get up high enough to dunk.

“Yeah, he does need to do some calf raises so he can dunk,” McCollum said.  “… Where I’m from, if you talk trash, then I’m going to talk trash to you. It’s not disrespectful. We’re not talking about nobody’s mother or nothing bad.

“But I’ve known Draymond Green since he was at Michigan State. He was a little chubbier then at Michigan State. He’s done really well with himself. He’s worked hard. If I have something I want to say I’m going to say it.”

Lillard, who finished with 34 points, had a pretty good summation of his team’s play.

“I thought myself and CJ played good games tonight,” Lillard said. “And I thought as a group we really defended well. Guys were communicating and playing physical. I thought we executed our scouting report on the defensive end and I thought guys stepped up as well on the offensive end.

“Evan Turner had a good game. I felt like Mo (Harkless) played a good game. But it’s a matter of us two making more of those plays. Hitting guys on the weak side and giving them more opportunity.

“I think to beat the Warriors, we’re going to have to maybe make that extra pass more often and be able to defend on guys more often to allow them to have that type of success so we can actually beat them,”

Indeed, the Trail Blazers played more one-on-one basketball than usual. Rather than run a lot if pick-and-rolls against a team that switches on them, anyway, the two guards often just beat their defender off the dribble and drove to the point.

Obviously, Jusuf Nerkic would have made a difference for the Trail Blazers, but he sat this one out – still nursing that broken leg bone. Stotts was asked if there is a chance that he will play in the series.

“Yes,” came the one-word answer.

A ploy, just a fake out for Golden State's preparation or the real thing?

At this point I have no idea.

Golden State goes on a late run, puts away Trail Blazers in Game 1

Golden State goes on a late run, puts away Trail Blazers in Game 1

OAKLAND, Calif. –  The Trail Blazers on Sunday once again showed they can play with the Golden State Warriors.

But just like last season, during a playoff series that lasted five games, the Blazers haven’t shown they can finish a promising performance.

Golden State broke away from an 88-88 tie by starting the fourth quarter on a 15-2 run that led to a 121-109 steamrolling in Game 1 of the best-of-seven opening playoff series.

Despite a playoff career-high 41 points from CJ McCollum and 34 points from Damian Lillard, Golden State opened defense of its back-to-back conference championships by riding the wave of some momentum-swinging plays by do-it-all forward Draymond Green.

Green started the fourth quarter run with a three-pointer, then electrified the sold out Oracle Arena crowd with spectacular defense. He recorded three of his five blocks in the fourth quarter, including one on a dunk attempt by Lillard. When Kevin Durant turned the block into a jumper, the Warriors led 109-99 with 4:40 and the Blazers never threatened.

Green finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and five blocks and was in the middle of much of the back-and-forth jawing that took place between the two teams.

The fourth-quarter flurry was reminiscent of last season’s second-round series, when Portland led for 56.1 percent of the series, but lost four of the five games.

Portland was dealt a blow before the game when center Jusuf Nurkic was ruled out after he hoped to return from a broken right leg suffered just more than two weeks ago.

With Nurkic out, coach Terry Stotts shuffled his starting lineup, using Noah Vonleh at center and inserting Evan Turner in at small forward, with Maurice Harkless moving to power forward.

The move worked well, as the first three quarters were nip-and-tuck. The game featured 22 lead changes and 15 ties.

It was tied at 88 heading into the fourth after Pat Connaughton hit a leaning mid-range shot while being fouled with 0.8 seconds left. He made the free throw, capping a wild, see-saw third quarter that saw 15 lead changes and four ties.

A first half that included lots of jawing, was tied at 56 at halftime as McCollum had 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting. McCollum walked to the locker room nodding confidently at the Warriors’ bench, symbolizing a first half of back-and-forth both physically and verbally between the two teams. Lillard and Green had words during a free throw after Lillard fell hard to the floor, and later Durant and Harkless had an extended verbal volley as the teams went to a timeout near the end of the first half.

Portland hung close in the first quarter as Lillard and McCollum combined to score 24 of the Blazers’ 27 points. The Blazers shot just 30.4 percent in the quarter, but were within 31-27 thanks in part to 10-of-13 free throw shooting.

Golden State was led by Kevin Durant, who had 32 points and 10 rebounds, and Stephen Curry, who had 29 points.

Next up: Game 2, Blazers at Golden State, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (TNT)

Confident Trail Blazers look at first-round matchup with Golden State as 'opportunity'

Confident Trail Blazers look at first-round matchup with Golden State as 'opportunity'

In what most everyone else sees as an insurmountable obstacle, and perhaps the best NBA team ever assembled, the Trail Blazers view their first round playoff matchup with the Golden State Warriors as something much different.

“It’s a great opportunity,’’ coach Terry Stotts said Saturday, about 24 hours before Game 1 in Oakland. “We are glad we are here. It’s a good challenge to be facing the best team in the league right now … looking forward to upsetting the best team in the league.’’

In comparison to the Warriors (67-15), what the Blazers (41-41) lack in star power and depth they make up for in confidence.

Captain Damian Lillard, who was one of the best players in the NBA after the All-Star Break, has used a “shock the world” mantra in describing the Blazers’ mindset entering the best-of-seven series.

“We are coming out to win the series,’’ Lillard said. “Whether people are offended by that or not, that’s not our problem. We’ve worked hard to get here and we are not going to come in and just say ‘We are playing the best team, it’s not possible.’ We are going to go out there and play. We feel like we can beat them. If we don’t we shouldn’t go out there and lace up our shoes.’’

The Warriors finished with the NBA’s best record for the third straight season, and that included a 4-0 sweep of the Blazers, including a 45-point beatdown in December. But none of those meetings were when Portland had center Jusuf Nurkic, the 7-foot Bosnian who changed the Blazers’ season after being acquired in a Feb. 12 trade with Denver.

Whether Nurkic takes part in Game 1 is still up in the air, as the Blazers on Saturday listed him as questionable for the opener as he continues to heal from a fractured right fibula discovered on March 31.

Nurkic on Friday said if the decision were up to him, he will play, and although Stotts said Nurkic was not an “active participant” in Saturday’s practice, he said Nurkic was “involved.”

Lillard, meanwhile, smiled when asked questions about Nurkic, offering only a “no comment.’’

Whether Nurkic is able to play – and if so, how well he plays after being sidelined 15 days – figures to be central to the Blazers’ chances against the heavily favored Warriors.

The Blazers went 14-5 with Nurkic in the starting lineup, his size boosting the team’s rim protection, and his passing skill and pick-and-roll savvy alleviating the pressure on the Blazers’ talented backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum.

His screening also provided added space for the Blazers’ sharp-shooters, which contributed to the Blazers becoming the NBA’s second best 3-point shooting team after March 1 (40.7 percent).

With Nurkic making a two-way impact, the Blazers after March 1 had the NBA’s second best record (17-6), which included road wins at San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Atlanta and home wins over Houston, Utah, and Oklahoma City.

“He’s made a huge difference,’’ Lillard said. “You see how good of a team we are when he is on the floor. You see, since the break, since we got him, how we elevated our play because of the balance and how good he is on both ends of the floor.’’

Still, much of the Blazers’ chances rest in the hands of Lillard and McCollum, which is probably why Stotts separately called each of his starting guards to the side after Saturday’s practice in Portland. With McCollum first, then Lillard, Stotts sat on a bench and shared game film on a laptop, pointing out various nuances.

“We are going to need to be able to score, so we need to make sure we understand what gives us the best chance to score,’’ Stotts said later.

Of all the NBA playoff matchups, this might feature the most prolific set of guards.

Lillard averaged a career-high 27.0 points, the sixth highest in the NBA, and after the All-Star Break he averaged 29.7 points, second most in the NBA behind Russell Westbrook.

Meanwhile, CJ McCollum averaged a career-high 23.0 points and finished as the NBA’s top free-throw shooter at 91.2 percent.

They will be pitted against the Splash Brothers – Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson – with Curry as the former MVP and Thompson a noted defender as well as an accomplished shooter.

In last season’s playoff series, the Warriors often started with Thompson guarding Lillard, but this season they usually went with Curry on Lillard.

In three games this season against Golden State, Lillard averaged 23.3 points, but he historically has performed well against his hometown team. Last season in the Western Conference semifinals, Lillard averaged 31.8 points against the Warriors, which came after he scored what was then a career-high 51 points against Golden State in February.

Much of Lillard’s damage this season was done in attacks to the basket, usually after blowing by Curry. Lillard at the beginning of this season said Golden State “just didn’t look the same” defensively without Andrew Bogut protecting the paint, which Draymond Green said he took personally after the team’s first meeting on Nov. 1.

Green, of course, has become the leading candidate for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, playing what Lillard this week called “free safety” in the back of the Warriors’ defense. Lillard was clear to point out the Warriors have a great defense, specifically noting that Kevin Durant doesn’t get enough credit for his defense, but he added “I think we will be able to get our opportunities.’’

This is probably the biggest opportunity for the ascending McCollum to make a splash on the national scene. On the cusp of being a superstar, McCollum has at times carried the Blazers, with his scoring streaks often being the avalanche that buries an opponent.

Whether he can do it against the NBA’s second-rated defense, and in particular one of the NBA’s better defensive two-guards in Thompson, will be a subplot to the series.

“I know who I am as a player – I don’t worry about other players,’’ McCollum said. “But this is not about me and Klay, or Dame and Steph. It’s about the Blazers and Warriors.’’

As much bravado as the Blazers have shown leading up to the series, a confidence rooted in the fact they led Golden State for 56.1 percent of their five-game series last season and held double-digit leads in the final four games, they hold Golden State in reverence.

The Warriors own the NBA’s top offensive rating (113.2) and the second defensive rating (101.1). Their 11.63 point differential is the most since the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls and the fourth highest in NBA history.

In addition to leading the league in scoring, the Warriors led in assists, blocks, and steals. Their average of 30.4 assists is the most since the 1984-1985 Lakers.

“I don’t think anybody out there has us beating them, except us,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We just have to go out there and do what we know how to do.’’

For a Blazers team that six weeks ago was 11 games under .500 and spiraling toward a season of disappointment, a matchup against the Warriors isn’t daunting as it might seem.

“I’m sure people are expecting the worst, for us to go in there and get beat up on,’’ Lillard said. “But we are playing our best basketball of the season, and if we go in there and we swing first and show that we are here to win, and not just happy to make the playoffs, that’s when it will get interesting.’’