Damian Lillard couldn’t save the Portland Trail Blazers this time.
Lillard, who has two playoff series game-winners to his name, failed to connect on a series-saving attempt in overtime of Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. His fading attempt from the right corner sailed wide at the buzzer in a devastating 119-117 defeat.
Game, set, series: Warriors, who became the first NBA team to advance to a fifth straight Finals since the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and ‘60s. They completed the sweep without Kevin Durant (calf strain), Andre Iguodala (same) and DeMarcus Cousins (torn quad). As ever, they had all they needed in Stephen Curry (game-high 37 points), Draymond Green (another triple-double) and Klay Thompson, whose defense on Lillard down the stretch proved the difference.
“We’ve been here before, we’ve seen everything,” Curry told ESPN’s Doris Burke afterwards. “Every experience you can imagine. We relied on that. Three starters down, everybody stepped up, played amazing minutes, and we fought until the end. We could’ve said Game 5 was our game. But we saw how long that break was gonna be, so we wanted to take advantage of it.”
Meyers Leonard, of all people, nearly saved the Blazers. With his team facing elimination, the seventh-year stretch center posted the performance of his life, scoring 25 first-half points — more than he has ever scored in any full NBA or college game — and it still wasn’t enough.
The Blazers shot 60 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range in a 35-point first quarter, and yet they still trailed the Golden State Warriors by a point. That’s how disheartening it can be to face the two-time defending champions, even without Kevin Durant, but the Blazers do not quit — not with Lillard at the helm of a team that had already overcome so much.
Lillard said before the game that he believed his Blazers had a chance to be the first team ever to come back from a 3-0 deficit in an NBA playoff series (against one of the greatest teams in league history, no less). He played like it, too, shaking off the rust of a 15-for-46 shooting effort through the first three games and playing through a rib injury to score 28 points on 24 shots.
Lillard’s backcourt mate, C.J. McCollum, also played well, adding 26 points on 22 shots after starting 23-of-62 in the series, but Leonard stole the show. The 7-footer’s back-to-back 3’s in the final minutes of the second quarter pushed Portland’s lead to nine points, and another 3 — his fifth of the half on six attempts — gave the Blazers a 69-57 edge 32 seconds before halftime.
The Warriors being the Warriors, regardless of who starts around Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, never let the Blazers get too comfortable. An eight-point Curry flurry in a span of 26 seconds — two 3’s around a questionable clear-path foul — sliced Portland’s lead to four before the break. The two-time MVP also had 25 points at the half.
Lillard and McCollum picked up the mantle for Portland in the third quarter, combining for 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including a string of eight straight points by McCollum that pushed the lead back to double digits four minutes into the second half. The Blazers were in control, in so much as you can be against a team that has lit the league on fire for five years running.
The Warriors came back, because these Warriors always come back. They sliced a 17-point lead in half in the last two minutes of the third quarter, and when the Blazers finally went cold midway through the fourth, they chipped away until Green’s 21-footer gave Golden State its first lead since the seven-minute mark of the second quarter, 108-106, with 3:30 left in regulation.
Lillard answered with a 3, and Leonard dropped the hammer on his career night — a transition dunk over Green, the self-proclaimed greatest defensive player ever, that gave Portland a 111-108 lead with two minutes remaining in the fourth. Thompson responded with a game-tying triple 11 seconds later, and neither team scored over the final 1:48 of regulation. The Blazers were saved by Curry’s shuffling travel to the 3-point line that erased a potential game-winner.
The two teams traded baskets in the overtime period, until the Warriors strung a second straight bucket together when Green drained a wide-open 3-pointer made possibly by the attention paid to Curry. That gave Golden State a 119-115 edge with 39 seconds to play. Lillard tried valiantly to erase the deficit, scoring on a layup seven seconds later and taking it to the rim for a game-tying attempt that Thompson blocked out of bounds with three seconds left. Lillard’s night and season ended there.