Barber: Trail Blazers just no match for Warriors

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OAKLAND — Steve Kerr was trying.

“You never feel that comfortable as an NBA coach, in any game, because everyone’s got talent,” the Warriors leader said after his team had dispatched the Portland Trail Blazers 116-94 in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. “Especially this team, with (C.J.) McCollum and (Damian) Lillard, we know what they are capable of. We’ve seen both of them just have huge nights in the playoffs. … We go into the fourth (quarter), I think it was a six-point game. No, I did not feel comfortable.”

Meanwhile, the rest of Warriors World was sitting in front of a crackling fire, bathrobe on, bunny-slippered feet resting atop an ottoman, glass of warm cocoa at the ready. Kerr may claim to have been uncomfortable Tuesday night, but everyone else who follows this team was positively cozy.

Because the Trail Blazers simply are not a threat to the Warriors.

It isn’t what you would expect from the conference finals. And it’s a major contrast with the just-finished semifinal series against the Houston Rockets, who are constructed to make the Warriors sweat and grind for wins — and perhaps with the NBA Finals to follow, because the Bucks and Raptors are deeply talented foes.

But here we are. The Blazers are a good team, a likable team, that has exceeded expectations, and has virtually no chance of ending the Warriors’ reign.

We’ve seen this movie before. Portland and Golden State bumped heads in the second round of the playoffs in 2016, and the first round in 2017. Those games felt competitive. The overall series did not. Final score: Warriors 8, Trail Blazers 1.

Before Tuesday’s game, I asked Portland coach Terry Stotts if he sees signs that this year’s team has a better chance of pulling off the upset.

“I’ll say this,” Stotts replied. “I think we’re a better team now than we were those two years. We’ve gained experience. A lot of the guys, when you look at Dame, CJ, (Al-)Farouq (Aminu), Moe (Harkless), Meyers (Leonard), we have some carryover from those teams. But I think all those guys have gotten better over time.”

Stotts added: “This is a new year. They’re a different team, we’re a different team. But we’ll see how it goes.”

He formed a wry little smile before he spoke that last sentence. I interpreted it as the muted confidence of the gritty underdog, though it may have been resignation.

Stotts is correct when he says the Trail Blazers are a different team in 2019. But their core strength remains the same as it was in 2016 and 2017: Lillard and McCollum, one of the most dynamic backcourt combinations in the NBA. The problem for Portland is that its two guards are, at best, an even match with the Golden State tandem of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. And with 7-foot center Jusuf Nurkic lost to injury, just about everything else swings the Warriors’ way.

That was readily apparent in Game 1. Neither Lillard nor McCollum had a great shooting night, and the Trail Blazers didn’t really have a Plan C. Honestly, they didn’t play that poorly as a team. And they stuck around. Portland finished the third quarter on an 11-4 run, cutting its deficit to 77-71 as the final frame began. It was a single-digit game as late as 4:44 of the fourth quarter.

And yet it never really felt like the Blazers had a chance to win. Not to me, and not to anyone who isn’t a fictional character in the show “Portlandia.”

Kerr, despite his cautions to the media, felt just fine going to his reserves against the Trail Blazers. And I’m not talking about garbage time. I’m talking about the start of the second quarter, when Klay Thompson and regular backup guard Shaun Livingston were joined by Jonas Jerebko, Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell. What a wild lineup. Cook and Bell, in particular, had been buried on the bench against Houston until Game 6. This was the Trail Blazers, though. Kerr had little to lose.

And that quintet held its own, outscoring its Portland counterparts 20-16 over 7:18 of the second and fourth quarters. The talent gap was so great that Kerr even played someone who had been ruled out in the official pregame notes. That was young center Damian Jones, who hadn’t seen the court since undergoing pectoral surgery in early December.

“As of shootaround today, we had declared him out because we sort of were in that routine over the last several months,” Kerr explained.

Translation: Come on, these are the Trail Blazers. Andre Iguodala needs his rest. So what if I have to play someone with a severed leg or a case of scurvy?

The falsity of the Warriors-Blazers rivalry was highlighted by the hype surrounding the Steph-vs.-Seth confrontation. This was the first time ever that two brothers had faced off in an NBA conference championship series.

That’s pretty cool. And Seth Curry is a great story. He has overcome several injuries, fought his way out of the G-League, played for six NBA teams in five years and carved out a spot as a valuable bench player for the Trail Blazers. The guy can shoot, too. He was third in the league this year with a 3-point percentage of 45.0 — a little better than Steph’s, who was fourth at 43.7.

But Seth Curry is not Stephen Curry. The younger brother is a legitimate NBA rotation player. The elder is one of the greatest athletes of his generation. The two of them combined for 39 points Tuesday, and Steph had 36 of them.

It’s no knock on Seth Curry to point out that disparity. It’s reality. And so is Golden State’s huge advantage in this series, which resumes here Thursday. Motivation has been an elusive tool for the Warriors this season. It may be hard to locate in Games 2, 3 or 4. No matter what the Warriors tell you.

“This series is going to get tougher and tougher,” Draymond Green said after Tuesday’s game. “Contrary to what every headline will say tomorrow, we know how tough it will be.”

Hey, I don’t write the headlines. But I do offer my opinions. And I think Green is wrong. The Trail Blazers might steal a game in this series, but Kerr won’t really put down that cup of cocoa until the next round.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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