Neil Olshey says Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum won't be traded

Neil Olshey says Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum won't be traded

If the Trail Blazers are going to get better in a trade this summer, it won’t involve Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, the Blazers’ top executive said on Tuesday.

Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations, said the Blazers will look to improve the roster this offseason, but said that process will not include using one of their star guards for trade bait.

“The odds of anything ever coming up of commensurate value is so hard to even fathom,’’ Olshey said when asked whether Lillard or McCollum were off limits in a trade. “I could give you the trite answer that ‘Nobody is untradeable,’ but clearly they are.’’

Both Lillard and McCollum are under contract through the 2020-2021 season and both are coming off career seasons.

Lillard, who signed a five-year, $120 million extension in July of 2015, this season averaged 27 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds while shooting 44.4 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three-point range.

McCollum, who last summer signed a four-year, $106 million extension, this season averaged 23 points, 3.6 assists and 3.7 rebounds while leading the NBA in free-throw percentage (91.2). He also shot 48 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range.

The Blazers have $132 million committed to contracts for next season, and many of those contracts figure to be difficult to move, or unlikely to garner a significant player in return, leaving some to wonder if the only way for the Blazers to make a jump is to trade one of their stars.

Also, Lillard and McCollum – both of whom are generously listed at 6-foot-3 -- are considered below average defenders, both because of their size and technique, creating an obstacle for the team’s long term success.

However, Olshey on Tuesday said it is his job to surround the guards with support.

“It presents a challenge,’’ Olshey said, noting that the size isn’t a problem when either plays the point guard position. “It’s my job to fortify the other positions to the point where they are not as vulnerable when they are out there together.’’

Olshey said the late-season addition of center Jusuf Nurkic helped cover some of the Blazers’ size deficiencies in the backcourt because the team’s overall size and length improved, and he noted the team’s defense jumped into the top 10 after the All-Star Break.

“I look at it like we are really blessed and lucky to have Dame and CJ, understanding it does present some challenges on the defensive end,’’ Olshey said. “So it’s my job, and the job of guys on my staff, that we support them and make them less vulnerable when they share the floor together.’’

Olshey: Festus Ezeli won't return to Trail Blazers next season

Olshey: Festus Ezeli won't return to Trail Blazers next season

Center Festus Ezeli will not be on the Trail Blazers next season, the team’s top executive said on Tuesday.

Neil Olshey, the team’s president of basketball operations, said the Blazers will not pick up the one-year option on Ezeli, who did not play this season because of a left knee injury that eventually required season-ending surgery. Ezeli, who made about $7 million this season, has $1 million guaranteed for next season whether the Blazers keep him or not.

“We stay in contact with Festus, giving him full organizational support in his rehab, but we can’t have that kind of risk again,’’ Olshey said. “To have a roster spot in a critical position for someone we are not … we don’t have a body of work with him.’’

The Blazers can still trade Ezeli’s contract leading up to June 30, when they have to declare their intentions of picking up his option.

Ezeli was a free agent signing last season after four seasons with Golden State, where he battled knee injuries. He missed the entire 2013-2014 season and part of the 2015-2016 season because of knee issues.

He participated in one October practice in Portland, then experienced pain and swelling and never returned, opting for cadaver donation surgery in April. 

Golden State puts finishing touches on sweep of Trail Blazers with dominating first quarter

Golden State puts finishing touches on sweep of Trail Blazers with dominating first quarter

The Trail Blazers’ season is over, their final attempt at redemption buried amid an avalanche of greatness from Golden State on Monday.

In a devastating start to Game 4, Golden State bolted to leads of 14-0 and 41-13 before eventually sealing a sweep in the best-of-seven series with a 128-103 win at the Moda Center.

Golden State tied an NBA-playoff record with 45 first quarter points and handed the Blazers their first playoff sweep since the Lakers in 2002 won a best-of-five series in three games.

Damian Lillard led the Blazers with 34 points and Al-Farouq Aminu had 25 points, but CJ McCollum missed his first nine shots and finished with six points and one assist on 2-of-12 shooting and the Blazers were held to 38.8 percent shooting.

Golden State, which welcomed the return of Kevin Durant after the star missed Games 2 and 3 with a calf injury, was led by Stephen Curry (37 points), Klay Thompson (18 points) and Draymond Green (21 points, six rebounds, four assists). Durant had 10 points in 20 minutes.

Golden State entered the playoffs with the NBA’s best record, and never did they play more like it than in Game 4, and in particular the first quarter.

In a whirlwind of three-pointers, blocks and dunks, the Warriors instantly sucked the air out of the sold out Moda Center. Portland didn’t score until 3:38 into the game with an Evan Turner three-pointer, but the Blazers never could put together a run against the NBA’s second best defense.

The Blazers started the third different starting lineup of the series in Game 4, inserting Meyers Leonard at center, but the move turned out to be moot after the Warriors’ hot start. Leonard played the opening five minutes, during which he grabbed one rebound, and did not play again until the final five minutes, as coach Terry Stotts started Aminu in the second half.

Any hopes for a Blazers’ comeback from a 72-48 halftime deficit were quickly dashed when the Warriors scored the first six points of the second half as the lead eventually swelled to as many as 33.

Shabazz Napier finished with 14 points and Noah Vonleh 14 rebounds for the Blazers. 

Podcast:

Bleak? Trail Blazers say series with Warriors hasn't started yet

Bleak? Trail Blazers say series with Warriors hasn't started yet

Like so many times before, the outlook is bleak today for the Trail Blazers, this time facing an 0-2 hole as they head into Saturday’s Game 3 against Golden State.

But inside the Blazers, they view life with a different lens.

Much like they were last season when they faced an 0-2 deficit to the Clippers in the first round, and much like this winter, when they were 11 games under .500 and three games out of a playoff spot, this team has shown a penchant for postponing their funeral.

So while the rest of the basketball world plans their tidy demise in four games to the mighty Warriors, the Blazers remained bold, if not brash, in their hope.

“We still believe we can beat them – don’t get it twisted,’’ captain Damian Lillard said. “They won the first two games, we competed well in the first, a blowout in the second, but after the game, scores don’t carry over.

“We feel like we matchup well … we feel like we can beat them.’’

Amid the flurry of clichés trumpeted after Friday’s practice – “a series doesn’t start until someone wins a road game” and “it’s never over until it’s over” – none carried more weight than the body of work in the last two seasons by the core of this team.

“I mean, look at the way our season went,’’ Maurice Harkless said, noting the Blazers 24-35 record entering March. “We rallied and found a way to make the playoffs. Right now, it’s similar: Our backs are against the wall and we have to find a way to rally and make it a series.’’

CJ McCollum said he figures the stubborn fight of the Blazers comes from the backgrounds of their roster. Both he and Lillard went to small schools after being unheralded coming out of high school. Harkless was traded to Portland by Orlando for virtually nothing. Allen Crabbe was a second-round pick. And players like Al-Farouq Aminu and Shabazz Napier have nearly played for as many teams as they have years of NBA service.

“Being counted out, it takes a certain determination, a certain mindset to overcome and have success,’’ McCollum said.

A mindset is one thing. Having enough talent and the ability to execute against the NBA’s best team is another.

The refrain from many of the Blazers players was the 110-81 Game 2 loss – which came with Golden State star Kevin Durant sidelined – meant nothing. Yet, those same players were quick to point out their competitive Game 1 loss, when the score was tied heading into the fourth quarter.

“We have to compete for a full game – I don’t think we’ve done that yet,’’ Harkless said. “We’ve had quarters, we’ve had halves, but we haven’t put together a full game. Game 3 we have to put a full game together.’’

Portland in last season’s playoffs lost the first two at Golden State then won Game 3 in Portland. This season, Portland finished the season with eight wins in a row at home before a loss to New Orleans in the season finale. Golden State this season won both games in Portland, although Evan Turner had a chance to win the second meeting with a three pointer that was off.

The Blazers on Friday “upgraded” center Jusuf Nurkic from out to doubtful for Game 3, which is a step forward but still a regression from the questionable designation he was given for Game 1.

Nurkic or not, Lillard says this is not the time to plan vacations.

“Had we given up after the second game last year (to the Clippers) and come into Game 3 with our heads down, and maybe it doesn’t even matter … maybe we go home in the first round,’’ Lillard said. “It just goes to show that you just never know.’’

Harkless: Blazers face 'must win' in Game 3 against Warriors

Harkless: Blazers face 'must win' in Game 3 against Warriors

OAKLAND, Calif. – As much as they tried to tell themselves it was only one game, and that the margin of defeat didn’t matter, the Trail Blazers in the aftermath of Wednesday’s Game 2 blowout at Golden State knew they had put themselves in a precarious position.

Saturday’s Game 3 in Portland?

“It’s a must win game, for sure,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We have to get that game. If we want a chance to win the series, we have to win Game 3.’’

As if playing perhaps the best team ever assembled wasn’t daunting enough, NBA history shows that in seven-game playoff series, teams that have gone up 2-0 have won nearly 94 percent of the time (262-18). 

“We’ve got to get this one,’’ Damian Lillard said of Game 3. “You don’t want to go home and drop this one and then, you know, even if you do win Game 4 you’re coming back here looking at elimination.’’

At the forefront of the Blazers’ preparation figures to be how to stop JaVale McGee from impacting the game so emphatically in his short spurts, while also bracing for what the law of averages says will be a breakout game from the struggling Klay Thompson.

McGee has hurt the Blazers with his rebounding and dunks off lobs – both of which seem to come at pivotal times that sway momentum back in the Warriors’ favor. In Game 2 he had 15 points and five rebounds in 13 minutes, hitting all seven of his shots.

His effectiveness has highlighted the Blazers’ inexperience and lack of depth at the center position. With centers Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis and Festus Ezeli injured, the Blazers have turned to Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard, who have been overwhelmed, and Al-Farouq Aminu, who has been physically overmatched.

 “We didn’t communicate the switches well, but it’s a challenge,’’ coach Terry Stotts said of McGee’s effectiveness. “When you have a guy like Steph or Klay coming off (a screen) you’ve got to get up and guard them and not let the big get behind you … we didn’t obviously cover it the way we wanted to.’’

If McGee’s impact has been unexpected, so too was the Warriors’ ease with Game 2 considering they played without Kevin Durant (calf), Shaun Livingston (finger, hand) and Matt Barnes (ankle).

What’s more, the Warriors enjoy the comforts of a two-game lead despite erratic performances from both Thompson and Curry, neither of which has been near the top of their game.

Thompson on Wednesday continued his series funk, going 6-for-17 with six turnovers. He is now 12-for-33 in the series with eight turnovers while Curry is 15-of-37 in the series with nine turnovers.

Still, with the exception of a second-quarter flurry by the Blazers, Game 2 was never close. Most of the Blazers starters watched for the final 10 minutes from the bench.

“That’s why it’s a series – points don’t carry over,’’ Harkless said. “Doesn’t matter how much we lost by – one or 50 – next game we start 0-0.’’

That will come Saturday in Portland, in a game the Blazers have already amplified to a must-win.

“That’s not pressure,’’ Harkless said of the must-win proclamation. “It’s basketball.’’

Game 2 gets away from Blazers amid avalanche of turnovers, missed shots

Game 2 gets away from Blazers amid avalanche of turnovers, missed shots

OAKLAND, Calif. – The Trail Blazers had a great three-minute opening to Game 2.

Then the rest of the game happened.

Golden State took a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven playoff series in commanding fashion Wednesday, using a 20-2 run in the first quarter and a 21-6 spurt to begin the second half that led to a 110-81 victory at Oracle Arena.

Teams in the NBA playoffs with 2-0 leads are 364-24 (.938) all-time and 262-18 in best-of-seven series.

Game 3 is Saturday in Portland.

Neither CJ McCollum nor Damian Lillard could replicate their Game 1 excellence and the Blazers as a whole were sloppy (19 turnovers) and generally off (33.3 percent shooting) as Golden State beat Portland for the 12th consecutive time.

After scoring 41 points in Game 1, McCollum missed his first five shots and finished with 11 points in 4-of-17 shooting. Lillard, who had 34 in Game 1, made four of his first five shots then made only one of his next 12 shots, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting.

Portland led 9-4 in the first three minutes as Lillard made three driving baskets, but Golden State answered with a 20-2 run that was fueled by some shoddy passing from McCollum and Evan Turner and some close-range misses, as Lillard, McCollum and Maurice Harkless all missed layins.

The only Portland threat came in the second, when the Blazers trimmed their 33-17 first-quarter deficit to 43-42 behind the play-making of Turner and the scoring of Harkless. Turner had six assists in the second and Harkless 10 of his 15 points, but the Warriors closed the half on a 12-4 run to lead 55-46 at the break.

In the third, Portland was held to 12 points, the lowest by a Golden State playoff opponent in the shot-clock era, and by 10:24 in the fourth it was 89-60 and Stotts had taken out his starters and replaced them with Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard.

Golden State entered the game worried about its depth after star Kevin Durant (calf), backup point guard Shaun Livingston (finger, hand) and reserve Matt Barnes (ankle) all were ruled out.

But behind a game-changing 13 minutes from reserve center JaVale McGee (15 points, five rebounds) and another all-around game from Draymond Green (six points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists), the Warriors got by without Durant and off-nights from Stephen Curry (6-of-18, 19 points) and Klay Thompson (6-of-17, 16 points).

Harkless led the Blazers with 15 points, all in the first half, and Lillard (12) and McCollum (11) were the only other Portland players in double figures. Allen Crabbe, who guaranteed a better Game 2 after going 1-for-5 with three points in Game 1, went 3-for-10 and missed all five of his three-point attempts.

Podcast:

Allen Crabbe makes a Game 2 guarantee: He will play better

Allen Crabbe makes a Game 2 guarantee: He will play better

SAN FRANCISCO – Allen Crabbe has a Game 2 guarantee.

After a nondescript 22-minute performance in Game 1, during which he had three points on 1-for-5 shooting, the Trail Blazers’ wing says he will be more aggressive and be more of a factor in Wednesday’s Game 2 against Golden State.

“I understand how important it is for me to come off the bench and bring something to the table,’’ Crabbe said.  “Game 2 for me, I know is definitely not going to be like Game 1. I can guarantee that.’’

One of the lingering questions out of the Trail Blazers’ 121-109 loss to Golden State in Game 1 was who could provide some production outside of  Blazers’ stars CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.

Crabbe, who in the regular season was the Blazers’ fourth leading scorer behind Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, believes that production could come from him.

He says the game plan doesn’t need to change, and coach Terry Stotts doesn’t need to call plays differently. He says it all starts with his mindset.

“It’s me,’’ Crabbe said. “I have to take things into my own hands and be aggressive and go get shots.’’

If you feel like you’ve heard or read this from Crabbe before, you are right.

Much of this season, Crabbe has been battling consistency, a problem that for him is rooted in his aggression. When he shoots, he is productive. When he doesn’t, he becomes anonymous.

The value of an aggressive Crabbe has become obvious this season. When he shoots 10 or more shots, the Blazers are 18-9 (.667 winning percentage). When he scores in double figures they are 25-16 (.609 winning percentage).

“I know a lot of people are saying, like,  ‘You scored this one night, then you go back to scoring this’… well, I feel like it’s me being just having to be in tune with the game and not feeling out the game,’’ Crabbe said.

Crabbe said that Blazers captain Damian Lillard in Game 1 was again in his ear, both on the court and from the sideline. Throughout the season, Lillard has repeatedly told the media that he tells Crabbe to shoot it every time he touches the ball.

“During Game 1, he was like ‘Shoot the ball’ and even when he was on the bench, he was telling me ‘be aggressive, be aggressive,’’’ Crabbe said. “He tells me when I’m aggressive like that it helps the team more and it helps him. And I know I can’t just be out there on the court and not doing anything.’’

Crabbe says he can’t make the mistake of letting the game come to him.

“I can’t wait for certain moments to be aggressive,’’ Crabbe said. “I have to come out and when I step on the floor look for ways to put some points up.’’

He said maybe that means instead of waiting in the corner for a three he goes and sets a pick instead of the power forward or center. Or maybe he cuts to the basket more often and tries to get an easy score.

“I just can’t wait. I can’t wait to feel out a game. I just have to go in with the mindset of getting them up early. The more and more I get the shots up, the more I will be able to produce,’’ Crabbe said.

Stotts on Tuesday was quick to defend Crabbe, noting that it was his first action in 10 days after missing the Blazers’ final three regular season games resting his sore left foot.

“We need him, that’s obvious,’’ Stotts said. “But just because he had one rusty game coming back off injury is a little early for that narrative, to be honest. But yeah, he’s a big part of what we need.’’

In Game 1, McCollum had 41 points and Lillard 34. But the rest of the Blazers went 12-for-39 from the field.

Stotts said the key will be getting production not just out of Crabbe, but also Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless. Aminu went 0-for-5 and Harkless 5-for-13.

Last season, Crabbe had a slow start in the playoffs. In the first three games against the Clippers he went for six points, zero points and zero points before going 5-for-5 in Game 4. After that, his last eight playoff games he went 36-of-61 from the field (59 percent) and 15-for-30 from 3-point range.

Whether his mental reset for Game 2 sparks a change figures to be central to the Blazers’ chances of scoring an upset.

“I’m pretty sure for Game 2 there will be a different story,’’ Crabbe said. 

CJ McCollum after Game 1 loss to Warriors: 'We are right there. They know we are coming.'

CJ McCollum after Game 1 loss to Warriors: 'We are right there. They know we are coming.'

OAKLAND, Calif. – After all the back-and-forth of Sunday’s Game 1 – the 22 lead changes, the verbal exchanges, and ultimately a 121-109 victory by Golden State – Trail Blazers guard CJ MCollum took solace in one thing:

The Trail Blazers have announced their presence in this series.

“We are right there,’’ McCollum told CSNNW. “They know we are coming.’’

Golden State seized a 1-0 lead on the Blazers in an entertaining and competitive opener on Easter, but for the Warriors it wasn’t without some uneasy moments and some issues that will linger into Wednesday’s Game 2.

Portland’s dynamic duo of McCollum (41 points) and Damian Lillard (34 points) had the Warriors scrambling defensively, and if not for a heroic defensive performance by Draymond Green and another uncanny dagger administered by Ian Clark, who knows what kind of David vs. Goliath storylines would be developing out of Game 1.

“If it was to me, it's the perfect way to win Game 1,’’ Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “You get a real taste for what you’re up against. You take a really good punch from your opponent, you see how good they are, but you’re able to overcome everything and still get the win.’’

As both teams head to their bunkers to prepare for Wednesday’s Game 2, they do so with different questions. Golden State has to wonder if they can stop McCollum and Lillard, while Portland will be left wondering if its supporting cast is capable of getting them over the hump.

Kerr said the focus will be on preventing Lillard and McCollum from getting to areas they want.

“They made some tough shots, but they also got to their spots,’’ Kerr said. “We’re trying to keep them from getting into their comfort zones, and they seemed to get there with ease in the first half. We did a better job in the second half, but we have to understand that’s how this series is going to go. Hopefully, they don’t get 75 points between them in Game 2, but they might. That’s how good they are. So we’ve just got to keep trying to make it hard on them and do the best we can.’’

The Blazers, meanwhile, got little to no offensive help outside of  Lillard and McCollum. Evan Turner, a surprise starter, had 12 points and hit 2-of-3 three-pointers, and Maurice Harkless had 11 points, but in total, the Blazers sans the starting backcourt shot 12-of-39 (30.8 percent).

Nobly, Lillard absorbed responsibility to get more of his teammates involved when looking ahead to the rest of the series.

“It’s a matter of us two making more plays – hitting guys on the weak side and giving them more opportunity,’’ Lillard said. “I think to beat the Warriors we’re going to have to maybe make that extra pass more often and be able to depend on guys more often to allow them to have that type of success.’’

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because Portland went through a similar experience last season against Golden State in the playoffs. The Blazers led for 56.1 percent of the series, and held double-digit leads in the final four games, yet still lost 4-1.

Sunday was no different.

 “I thought we had it,’’ Harkless said. “But then that 15-2 run …”

The Blazers were tied heading into the fourth quarter before the Warriors went on a game-clinching 15-2 run that was spearheaded by some momentum-changing blocks by Green and another near-perfect performance from Clark.

Green had three of his five blocks in the fourth quarter, the biggest a rejection of Lillard who was heading for a driving dunk to cut the lead to 107-101. Instead, Green sprinted from the weakside and met Lillard head on.

With Green orchestrating to the crowd for more noise, Golden State transitioned up the court and Kevin Durant provided the final crescendo with a perfect jump shot that put the Warriors up 109-99.

It was the latest example of how much Green means to the Warriors and probably the best snapshot of why Green is a leading candidate for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

“He played a game that I’m not sure anybody else in the league is capable of, honestly,’’ Kerr said. “Who else can do what Draymond just did tonight? He’s so unique and so important to us. He was phenomenal.’’

While Portland will be searching for any of its role players to step to the forefront, Golden State knows if its playing Portland, that almost certainly means a big night from Clark, the fourth-year guard from Belmont.

Clark on Sunday hit 4-of-5 shots and finished with 12 points – seven of them coming in the decisive fourth quarter run. For the season, Clark averaged 4.5 points on 45 percent shooting and 36 percent three-point shooting, but in five games against the Blazers this season he is averaging 12.8 points while shooting a staggering 23-of-30 from the field and 9-of-13 from three-point range.

Portland figures to turn to Allen Crabbe or Al-Farouq Aminu for some help off the bench after both had forgettable performances. Crabbe, in his first game back since missing three games resting a sore left foot, went 1-for-5 and scored three points in 22 minutes while Aminu missed all five of his shots.

“I definitely wanted to provide a little more, but it’s Game 1,’’ Crabbe said. “I just need to find ways to get myself going early.’’

Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who shuffled his starting lineup by moving Noah Vonleh to center, inserting Turner to small forward and shifting Harkless to power forward, said its imperative the Blazers get more production outside of Lillard and McCollum.

“It’s going to take a team to beat them,’’ Stotts said. “Damian and CJ are talented scorers and they both had great offensive nights … but we need everybody. Guys have to be ready to make shots.’’

On Sunday, those shots in the game seldom fell.

But McCollum suggested a bigger shot might have been volleyed.

The Blazers are coming, he says, and the Warriors know it.

Golden State goes on a late run, puts away Trail Blazers in Game 1

Golden State goes on a late run, puts away Trail Blazers in Game 1

OAKLAND, Calif. –  The Trail Blazers on Sunday once again showed they can play with the Golden State Warriors.

But just like last season, during a playoff series that lasted five games, the Blazers haven’t shown they can finish a promising performance.

Golden State broke away from an 88-88 tie by starting the fourth quarter on a 15-2 run that led to a 121-109 steamrolling in Game 1 of the best-of-seven opening playoff series.

Despite a playoff career-high 41 points from CJ McCollum and 34 points from Damian Lillard, Golden State opened defense of its back-to-back conference championships by riding the wave of some momentum-swinging plays by do-it-all forward Draymond Green.

Green started the fourth quarter run with a three-pointer, then electrified the sold out Oracle Arena crowd with spectacular defense. He recorded three of his five blocks in the fourth quarter, including one on a dunk attempt by Lillard. When Kevin Durant turned the block into a jumper, the Warriors led 109-99 with 4:40 and the Blazers never threatened.

Green finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and five blocks and was in the middle of much of the back-and-forth jawing that took place between the two teams.

The fourth-quarter flurry was reminiscent of last season’s second-round series, when Portland led for 56.1 percent of the series, but lost four of the five games.

Portland was dealt a blow before the game when center Jusuf Nurkic was ruled out after he hoped to return from a broken right leg suffered just more than two weeks ago.

With Nurkic out, coach Terry Stotts shuffled his starting lineup, using Noah Vonleh at center and inserting Evan Turner in at small forward, with Maurice Harkless moving to power forward.

The move worked well, as the first three quarters were nip-and-tuck. The game featured 22 lead changes and 15 ties.

It was tied at 88 heading into the fourth after Pat Connaughton hit a leaning mid-range shot while being fouled with 0.8 seconds left. He made the free throw, capping a wild, see-saw third quarter that saw 15 lead changes and four ties.

A first half that included lots of jawing, was tied at 56 at halftime as McCollum had 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting. McCollum walked to the locker room nodding confidently at the Warriors’ bench, symbolizing a first half of back-and-forth both physically and verbally between the two teams. Lillard and Green had words during a free throw after Lillard fell hard to the floor, and later Durant and Harkless had an extended verbal volley as the teams went to a timeout near the end of the first half.

Portland hung close in the first quarter as Lillard and McCollum combined to score 24 of the Blazers’ 27 points. The Blazers shot just 30.4 percent in the quarter, but were within 31-27 thanks in part to 10-of-13 free throw shooting.

Golden State was led by Kevin Durant, who had 32 points and 10 rebounds, and Stephen Curry, who had 29 points.

Next up: Game 2, Blazers at Golden State, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (TNT)

Confident Trail Blazers look at first-round matchup with Golden State as 'opportunity'

Confident Trail Blazers look at first-round matchup with Golden State as 'opportunity'

In what most everyone else sees as an insurmountable obstacle, and perhaps the best NBA team ever assembled, the Trail Blazers view their first round playoff matchup with the Golden State Warriors as something much different.

“It’s a great opportunity,’’ coach Terry Stotts said Saturday, about 24 hours before Game 1 in Oakland. “We are glad we are here. It’s a good challenge to be facing the best team in the league right now … looking forward to upsetting the best team in the league.’’

In comparison to the Warriors (67-15), what the Blazers (41-41) lack in star power and depth they make up for in confidence.

Captain Damian Lillard, who was one of the best players in the NBA after the All-Star Break, has used a “shock the world” mantra in describing the Blazers’ mindset entering the best-of-seven series.

“We are coming out to win the series,’’ Lillard said. “Whether people are offended by that or not, that’s not our problem. We’ve worked hard to get here and we are not going to come in and just say ‘We are playing the best team, it’s not possible.’ We are going to go out there and play. We feel like we can beat them. If we don’t we shouldn’t go out there and lace up our shoes.’’

The Warriors finished with the NBA’s best record for the third straight season, and that included a 4-0 sweep of the Blazers, including a 45-point beatdown in December. But none of those meetings were when Portland had center Jusuf Nurkic, the 7-foot Bosnian who changed the Blazers’ season after being acquired in a Feb. 12 trade with Denver.

Whether Nurkic takes part in Game 1 is still up in the air, as the Blazers on Saturday listed him as questionable for the opener as he continues to heal from a fractured right fibula discovered on March 31.

Nurkic on Friday said if the decision were up to him, he will play, and although Stotts said Nurkic was not an “active participant” in Saturday’s practice, he said Nurkic was “involved.”

Lillard, meanwhile, smiled when asked questions about Nurkic, offering only a “no comment.’’

Whether Nurkic is able to play – and if so, how well he plays after being sidelined 15 days – figures to be central to the Blazers’ chances against the heavily favored Warriors.

The Blazers went 14-5 with Nurkic in the starting lineup, his size boosting the team’s rim protection, and his passing skill and pick-and-roll savvy alleviating the pressure on the Blazers’ talented backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum.

His screening also provided added space for the Blazers’ sharp-shooters, which contributed to the Blazers becoming the NBA’s second best 3-point shooting team after March 1 (40.7 percent).

With Nurkic making a two-way impact, the Blazers after March 1 had the NBA’s second best record (17-6), which included road wins at San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Atlanta and home wins over Houston, Utah, and Oklahoma City.

“He’s made a huge difference,’’ Lillard said. “You see how good of a team we are when he is on the floor. You see, since the break, since we got him, how we elevated our play because of the balance and how good he is on both ends of the floor.’’

Still, much of the Blazers’ chances rest in the hands of Lillard and McCollum, which is probably why Stotts separately called each of his starting guards to the side after Saturday’s practice in Portland. With McCollum first, then Lillard, Stotts sat on a bench and shared game film on a laptop, pointing out various nuances.

“We are going to need to be able to score, so we need to make sure we understand what gives us the best chance to score,’’ Stotts said later.

Of all the NBA playoff matchups, this might feature the most prolific set of guards.

Lillard averaged a career-high 27.0 points, the sixth highest in the NBA, and after the All-Star Break he averaged 29.7 points, second most in the NBA behind Russell Westbrook.

Meanwhile, CJ McCollum averaged a career-high 23.0 points and finished as the NBA’s top free-throw shooter at 91.2 percent.

They will be pitted against the Splash Brothers – Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson – with Curry as the former MVP and Thompson a noted defender as well as an accomplished shooter.

In last season’s playoff series, the Warriors often started with Thompson guarding Lillard, but this season they usually went with Curry on Lillard.

In three games this season against Golden State, Lillard averaged 23.3 points, but he historically has performed well against his hometown team. Last season in the Western Conference semifinals, Lillard averaged 31.8 points against the Warriors, which came after he scored what was then a career-high 51 points against Golden State in February.

Much of Lillard’s damage this season was done in attacks to the basket, usually after blowing by Curry. Lillard at the beginning of this season said Golden State “just didn’t look the same” defensively without Andrew Bogut protecting the paint, which Draymond Green said he took personally after the team’s first meeting on Nov. 1.

Green, of course, has become the leading candidate for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, playing what Lillard this week called “free safety” in the back of the Warriors’ defense. Lillard was clear to point out the Warriors have a great defense, specifically noting that Kevin Durant doesn’t get enough credit for his defense, but he added “I think we will be able to get our opportunities.’’

This is probably the biggest opportunity for the ascending McCollum to make a splash on the national scene. On the cusp of being a superstar, McCollum has at times carried the Blazers, with his scoring streaks often being the avalanche that buries an opponent.

Whether he can do it against the NBA’s second-rated defense, and in particular one of the NBA’s better defensive two-guards in Thompson, will be a subplot to the series.

“I know who I am as a player – I don’t worry about other players,’’ McCollum said. “But this is not about me and Klay, or Dame and Steph. It’s about the Blazers and Warriors.’’

As much bravado as the Blazers have shown leading up to the series, a confidence rooted in the fact they led Golden State for 56.1 percent of their five-game series last season and held double-digit leads in the final four games, they hold Golden State in reverence.

The Warriors own the NBA’s top offensive rating (113.2) and the second defensive rating (101.1). Their 11.63 point differential is the most since the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls and the fourth highest in NBA history.

In addition to leading the league in scoring, the Warriors led in assists, blocks, and steals. Their average of 30.4 assists is the most since the 1984-1985 Lakers.

“I don’t think anybody out there has us beating them, except us,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We just have to go out there and do what we know how to do.’’

For a Blazers team that six weeks ago was 11 games under .500 and spiraling toward a season of disappointment, a matchup against the Warriors isn’t daunting as it might seem.

“I’m sure people are expecting the worst, for us to go in there and get beat up on,’’ Lillard said. “But we are playing our best basketball of the season, and if we go in there and we swing first and show that we are here to win, and not just happy to make the playoffs, that’s when it will get interesting.’’