OAKLAND, Calif. — As Andre Iguodala sprinted off the court screaming at his magic hands, the Portland Trail Blazers shuffled to the visiting locker room at Oracle Arena on Thursday night and rummaged for hope.
Hope after blowing a huge lead. Hope after losing a game they had needed to win. Hope amid the sad reality that, in theory, they would need to win four of their next five games against the Golden State Warriors — the Warriors! — to sustain their dream of reaching the N.B.A. finals for the first time since 1992.
“I thought we gave ourselves a chance,” said Damian Lillard, the Blazers’ All-Star point guard.
Lillard, who had the ball stripped from him by Iguodala as he tried to launch a 3-pointer in the waning moments of the Warriors’ 114-111 win, searched for consolation along with his teammates. A couple of idling buses were waiting outside to whisk the Blazers away from this place, this house of horrors, so they could head home to Portland for the next two games of the Western Conference finals. But hope against the Warriors is a flimsy concept, especially for an opponent that is staring at a 2-0 series deficit. Game 3 is Saturday in Portland.
“We feel like we’ve proven we can play with those guys and we can win,” Blazers forward Rodney Hood said. “It’s about sustaining it, which is the toughest part.”
The Blazers have shown their toughness in the playoffs. In the conference semifinals, they forced a seventh game against the Denver Nuggets — then won on the road to advance. But the Warriors, even absent Kevin Durant, are not the Nuggets, and their will to win seems as strong as ever.
“We stole that game,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “I thought they outplayed us for much of the night, the majority of the night, but we brought enough competitive fire in the second half to overcome their great play. We’ve been here before. I think our experience helped us.”
Consider: Golden State, after trailing by as many as 17 points, was still down by 8 late in the fourth quarter when Portland’s Meyers Leonard sank a 3-pointer with 4 minutes 28 seconds remaining. But then came the familiar onslaught from the Warriors, full of claustrophobic defense and offensive rebounds and backdoor passes and clutch jumpers. Iguodala sealed the win with his blocked shot.
“For me, as the offensive player, I felt like it was contact,” said Lillard, who had 23 points and 10 assists. “There was a lot of contact. But obviously the ref is not going to decide the game or jump in at that point. You know, so they — good defensive play.”
There was one big question before the game: How would the Blazers defend the Warriors’ Stephen Curry? In Tuesday’s series opener, Portland Coach Terry Stotts unveiled his strategy of having Curry’s defender fight through screens, rather than trap him with a second defender and force the ball out of his hands. Curry erupted for 36 points in 22-point win.
On Thursday, the Blazers actively tried to put the clamps on Curry by trapping, switching and hedging on screens — and whenever they were a step slow or gave Curry too much daylight, Stotts let his players know about it. In the first quarter, he called a timeout just so he could reprimand Leonard for allowing Curry an open 3-pointer (which he buried).
Curry wound up struggling from 3-point range, shooting 4 of 14. But by pressuring Curry along the perimeter, the Blazers sacrificed some help defense in the paint. Curry took advantage by getting to the basket. He finished with 37 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. So what are the Blazers supposed to do now? Neither strategy has been particularly effective.
“Steph is going to be Steph,” Warriors forward Kevon Looney said. “He’s going to take big shots and make shots.”
As for Lillard, nothing came easily. He shot 6 of 16 from the field against a steady diet of taller, rangier defenders. Klay Thompson, Alfonzo McKinnie and Iguodala were among the players who took turns on him. In the first half, Lillard made three field goals, and they were all 3-pointers from outer space: 32, 33 and 27 feet. It somehow got worse for him in the second half when Looney pounced on his back as they grappled for a loose ball. Lillard came up clutching his side.
“It didn’t affect my game,” Lillard said. “When you’re out there, you’re out there. There ain’t really no excuse.”
The Warriors are doing their damage without Durant, who injured his right calf against the Houston Rockets in the conference semifinals — and his return is not imminent. The team announced before Thursday’s game that he would not make the trip to Portland for Games 3 and 4, and that he would be evaluated again in a week.
“We’re confident we can win, but we would much rather have him playing,” Curry said. “So we’re going to hold the fort down until he gets back and go win another championship with our full squad.”
The Warriors, of course, are chasing their fourth championship in five years, and they are trying to eliminate the Blazers from the postseason for the third time in four years.
As they packed up their belongings and began to make their way to their buses, the Blazers emphasized some of the positives: their improved play, the numerous chances they had to win, the new opportunity in front of them with a couple of games at home.
“Flush this one,” Hood said, “and get ready for Saturday.”
If only it were that easy.