OAKLAND – This was the playoffs as they should be, 11 days of chasing and wrestling and winning and losing, each team probing itself as deeply as the other, and at the end the Warriors were exhausted, nearly every one of them, though none more than those flinching with every step.
Such a crucible can only help a team with designs on winning a second consecutive championship.
The Warriors are halfway to the top after finally burying the relentless Portland Trail Blazers with a 125-121 victory in Game 5 Wednesday night, clinching a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
“We had to fight and scrap and claw and do everything possible,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “And that's a tough team to guard and tough team to play against – again, much respect.”
The Warriors did some things very well, such as clutch shooting and timely defense. They never solved Portland’s offense, though, and certainly had a hard time consistently contesting open 3-pointers.
The Warriors survived this five-game series as much as they won it.
“We know what it takes to win in the playoffs,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “It's extremely hard, and the Blazers made it . . . it might be the closest five-game series of all time.”
The Warriors lost only once over five games, but they were outscored in 11 of 20 quarters in regulation. They trailed at the half in all but Game 1. They made fewer 3-pointers (71-64) and also shot them at a lower percentage (42.8 to 41.0).
The 73-win Warriors didn’t take apart the 44-win Blazers as much as they found what was necessary at winning time.
While the Blazers, who returned only one starter from last season, are trying to get a grip on how to close out games, the Warriors, with four consecutive playoff appearances with the same core group, know how to finish.
“It wasn't our best stuff,” Kerr said, “but we got it done.”
The Warriors trailed for much of Game 5 before rallying in the second half and going ahead for good early in the fourth quarter. Thompson’s scoring – 33 points, all in the first three quarters – kept them close early and Stephen Curry’s scoring, with 14 of his 29 coming in the fourth quarter, took care of business late.
The Warriors needed yet another second-half comeback, actually multiple comebacks, as the Blazers never let the game get away. They showed the resilience of bionic roaches.
“In the playoffs this is what you expect,” Curry said. “I mean, we're at home and playing a team like Portland, that's a talented team. You can't expect, especially in a closeout game to blow a team out.”
With the exception of Game 1, when the Warriors were up 20 entering the second quarter, there would be no blowouts. For much of Game 5, as Thompson and Curry were scorching the nets, Portland guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were giving it right back to the Warriors.
The Warriors, more than anything else, wore down the Blazers. Kerr played 11 different players, while Blazers coach Terry Stotts played only nine. It’s tough to win when the other team has more weapons at its disposal, even if the Warriors lost Andrew Bogut (strained right adductor) in the first half and Curry (sore right knee) and Draymond Green (tweaked left ankle) both playing through discomfort.
They got by and the postgame feeling was more of relief than triumph.
“We played decent,” Curry said. “We didn't play amazing, but we did enough to get the job done, and it just battle-tested us in those clutch kind of possessions down the stretch to find a way to get some stops and lock in offensively and just try to execute.
“So we know it's only going to get tougher as we go forward. The intensity, the atmosphere, and the pressure are going to build. We just have to rely on the experience of this series, last series, and what we learned about ourselves as we keep going.”
That can only help the Warriors are they refresh their minds and recover from their wounds. The next test, whether it’s the Spurs or the Thunder, will indeed be more demanding.