Programming note: Warriors-Blazers Game 3 coverage starts Saturday night at 6:30pm with Warriors Pregame Live on NBC Sports Bay Area, and streaming live right here.
OAKLAND -- The Warriors won Game 1 by 12 despite being torched by Portland’s two best players, and they dominated Game 2 without their most efficient player. They know where this is headed, and so do the Trail Blazers.
Even as this first-round series shifts to Portland this weekend, even as Blazers forward Maurice Harkless insists Game 3 represents the “must-win” phase, it is 96 minutes from its conclusion.
The sweep is on and it’s a shame. This could have been a mildly intriguing series if not for the absence of Jusuf Nurkic leaving Portland with a gaping hole at center.
Things being as they are, though, Warriors big man JaVale McGee can eat all he wants. Through two games, he has 21 points, on 10-of-11 shooting, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots. Coming off the bench in both games, he has inflicted this damage in less than 23 minutes.
Starting center Zaza Pachulia and primary backup David West aren’t facing any more real resistance.
“Without Nurkic, they're basically playing smaller lineups,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “So we're just trying to mix and match at that five spot and find the right combination.”
All combinations have been effective, largely because Portland as currently constituted is the least imposing team in the playoffs. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are fabulous; they’re also 6-foot-3 guards trying to carry a prohibitive underdog. These are not the Blazers that soared into the playoffs with a stirring six-week stretch run. They had a legitimate NBA center for most of that stretch.
Now they have none. With Nurkic on the sideline, there is not the scantest rumor of a competitive series.
Let’s face it: Portland wouldn’t be here without Nurkic, who was sensational after being acquired in trade on Feb. 13. The 7-foot “Bosnian Beast” became the first Blazer to average at least 15 points and 10 rebounds in his first 20 games since 1978, when Klay Thompson’s father, Mychal, managed the feat. The Blazers were 14-5 when Nurkic started, 27-36 in their other 63 games.
And now, thanks to a fractured leg, Nurkic is sitting. Down 2-0, it would be silly and ultra-risky for the Blazers to bring him back for Game 3 on Saturday and downright pointless to summon him for Game 4 Monday.
Meanwhile, backup center Ed Davis is recovering from shoulder surgery. The only other legitimate center on the roster, our good friend Festus Ezeli, has not played a single minute this season and is rehabbing his knee.
So the Blazers are left with Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh and Al-Farouq Aminu -- a stretch-5 and two relatively ordinary power forwards.
“You don't have time to think about that, Lillard said of Nurkic’s absence. “If you look at a guy and say, man, if we had Nurk, it would be different, we'd be down 20 by the time they turn their head back around.”
Just as there is reason to believe the Blazers will put forth their best before their fans at Moda Center, there also is reason to believe it absolutely will not matter.
The Warriors are up 2-0 even with Thompson shooting 36.4 percent. They’re up 2-0 with Stephen Curry negating his 10 assists with nine turnovers. They’re up 2-0 with Kevin Durant playing in only one of two games.
They’re up 2-0 while still idling because they pose problems for which the Blazers have zero answers, such as the concept of JaVale McGee as an unstoppable force.
“We can't allow JaVale McGee to come in and impact the game the way he has,” Lillard said. “We've seen him play a number of games, and he has his moments. But he's not coming in doing what he's been doing in these first two games. We've got to try to limit that if we want a chance to win games.”
A glance at the Portland “big men” leaves us with a single question: How?