Wednesday night was the fifth game of the series between the Blazers and the Warriors in the battle to reach the Western Conference Finals, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at this upstart Portland team. The stern focus and grit visible in the faces of their young players seemed to fade away as they were all smiles in their pregame warmups.
They weren’t expected to be here.
They were facing a near impossible challenge, but they clearly wanted to have fun and enjoy the moment.
“Coming into the season there were low expectations of us,” ” said C.J. McCollom about the mindset of the team coming into the season. “We made a lot of goals. We wanted to make the playoffs, we wanted to compete in the playoffs, and we felt like it was going to be a learning process.”
Even though they went down to the Warriors 4-1 in this series, they pushed the defending champions to the point where it looked like a Game 6 was going to be a very real possibility. The return of the league MVP, Stephen Curry, ignited the Dubs at the turning point of the series in Game 4, and started the process of hammering nails into the Blazers coffin.
McCollom said, “I think we competed. It came down to the last couple of possessions in the last 2 games.”
But the young superstar understands that competing isn’t the same as taking home a win. “We competed hard, but it wasn’t good enough, it’s 4-1, there’s no trophies for competing and losing,” he added.
The way Portland have played throughout this season has not only got their fans excited about the future of the team, but it’s made the rest of the league stand up and take notice of what they are doing. The combination of Damian Lillard and McCollum has proven to be one of the most exciting backcourt pairings to watch, and even though their supporting cast is young, they have taken their opponents by surprise cruising into a playoff berth.
Before the tip off on Wednesday night, Blazers’ coach Terry Stotts spoke about what his team could take away from their series against the Warriors. “You look at what we’ve done in the Clippers series and what we’ve done in this one, and I think the encouraging thing from a coaching standpoint and a player standpoint is that we got better throughout the series with the Clippers and I think we’ve gotten better throughout this series.
“You want to be able to learn from Game 1, Game 2, Game 3 and play better games. So from that standpoint, it’s encouraging and something to build on both short term and long term.”
It seemed as if the Stotts and the Blazers had conceded defeat before even walking out onto the floor, but that’s not at all how they played once game time rolled around.
As has been the case all series for Portland, they exploded out of the gate piling on points through Lillard and Moe Harkless in the first term, and jumping out to a ten-point lead. But it didn’t take long for the Dubs to pick up the intensity and reduce the gap.
Clinging to a 5-point lead at the half, the Blazers continued to fight hard into the third period responding to every Warriors made shot with one of their own frustrating their opposition as well as Dub Nation. A 16-point third term from Klay Thompson kept Golden State in the game after a defensive collapse took place due to a series of miscommunications between Draymond Green and Anderson Varejao. Portland took advantage, freeing up Alan Crabbe and Al-Farouq Aminu to knock down jump shot after jump shot, and ramping up the pressure on the defending champs.
The difference between young teams and championships teams is that championship teams know how to close out games, and that’s where the Blazers stuttered in Game 5. Keeping Lillard and McCollum out of the game on offensive end, Golden State took charge of the final term as their transition game kicked up a gear and Mo Speights and Curry found their range knocking down big time shots, including a dagger from Curry in the final 30 seconds to close out the game.
Stotts reflected on the Blazers’ season after the game.
“This was a remarkable season. I’ve been in the league coaching for 23 years, it was a special year. We had all young guys that got better, that worked hard. We had success. Success being more than just making the playoffs.
“The goal at the beginning of the season was that we were going to work with the players, they were going to get better, and and we were going to get better as a team. They came to work and got better, we got better, and we had success because of their character and their work ethic every day.”
Stotts also praised the fact that his team never stopped competing all season and brought that fight to the playoffs.
“When we were 9 games below .500, we were competing so I don’t don’t want to take that for granted. I’m proud of it, it’s what we do.”
Post-game, Steve Kerr heaped praise on the Portland team.
“That’s a terrific basketball team,” he said. “They’re extremely well coached, they play together, they’ve got great leadership, it’s not often that you play against a team in the playoffs and admire them at the same time.”
“It was a grind-it-out series,” said Steph Curry post game. “They are a very talented team as a whole, and when they make threes it’s tough to separate yourself.”
Averaging 26 points per game in the post-season, Portland has been led by Lillard. In only his fourth year in the league, Lillard has taken charge of this team, pushing them to not only compete, but defeat the best teams in the league all season.
“Our team did a great job of keeping our heads down and continuing to work,” said Lillard. “We stayed together through the tough times early in the season and continue to grow – The experience that we got this season was great. Regardless of what other people expected, the foundation that we built this year is the right thing, we did it the right way, and that’s what allows us to be in this position. We have got to continue to work and grow doing the same things we did all season, and try to continue to move forward.”
Though their run might be over for the 2015-16 season, the Blazers will be back bigger and stronger next season. Their performance in this year playoffs has shown that they are not to be taken lightly, and they are going to be looking to build on this season and take that next step this time next year.