TUALATIN, Ore. — The stage is bigger, the lights are brighter and Stephen Curry is nearing his return. In the middle of it all, are the young Portland Trail Blazers, still with plenty to learn.
The Blazers returned to the practice court Thursday after their most gut-wrenching loss of the postseason.
Portland faces an 0-2 deficit against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who won the first two games without Curry.
Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said that he and his team would approach preparation for Game 3 as if the reigning NBA MVP would return from a right knee sprain.
Minutes later and about 625 miles south, Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters in the Bay Area that Curry would be doubtful to play in Game 3.
Without Curry, Portland’s problems remain.
And the biggest problem through the first two games has been the Blazers’ inability to sustain excellence, which is a problem the Blazers have had to face and solve countless times since the preseason. This time they have to do it against the champs.
For six of the eight quarters, the Blazers have actually outscored the Warriors, 176-157.
But in the first quarter of Game 1 and the fourth quarter of Game 2, Golden State worked the Portland like the jayvee, 71-29.
The Blazers made adjustments in Game 2 like putting the taller and stronger Maurice Harkless on Klay Thompson and putting Al-Farouq Aminu on Draymond Green.
It doesn’t sound like there’s much else Portland is looking to fix other than maintaining the level of play that saw them take an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter of Game 2.
“I think right now it’s about sustaining a high level,” Stotts said. “I think that’s what championship teams do, that’s what great teams do. They are able to sustain a high level in the playoffs, in particular. And they are able to take up a notch. From our standpoint that’s what we need to do.”
The Blazers have tried recently not to fall back on excuses about the “process,” like they did earlier in the season, but it’s hard to shake an identity that helped them prove everybody wrong.
“It’s part of the process, usually you’re not talking about the process when you’re in the second round,” Stotts said. “You’ve got to learn from it. Golden State is a seasoned team. They’ve been through the highs and the lows. We’re adjusting to that. That’s going to be our challenge.”
The Blazers have moved on well from failure and learning from those experiences has been a hallmark of their season.
But even the best of attitudes didn’t make blowing an 11-point lead on the road go down any easier. Damian Lillard said before the team practice Thursday that during their day off Wednesday, he wanted “nothing to do with basketball.”
“I was pretty hot about that one,” Lillard said. “Not only was it a great opportunity but we had it. It was right there.”
It’s almost universally accepted that the only way to beat the Warriors is to try to slow them down.
But Portland feels as though its best opportunity is to run with the Warriors and to do that the Blazers must defend as they did in the first three quarters of Game 1.
“Our advantage is being able to push it in transition and get them scrambling and not allow them to set up their defense,” Lillard said. “They really help each other and pay close attention to detail. We have to make sure we have to defend, get those rebounds and push it back out there.”
Lillard said that a key to the defensive improvement in Game 2 was that the Blazers “took the fight” to the Warriors.
Although the 12-points in the fourth quarter and ugly turnovers were lasting memories of Game 2, the Blazers have their focus on the defensive end.
“I think we just have to continue to get stops and push pace, take advantage of opportunities in transition,” CJ McCollum said.