Photo: Steve Dipaola, AP
PORTLAND, Ore. — In a team sport like basketball, Kevin Durant is the rare player adept at wiping away others’ shortcomings with a workhorse performance. Few defenses have an answer when one of the best scorers in NBA history is intent on willing his team to victory.
But in Golden State’s 123-117 loss Wednesday night to Portland at Moda Center, even a 50-point, seven-rebound, six-assist, two-block gem from Durant wasn’t enough to overcome another sluggish start. Golden State heads into the All-Star break a half-game behind top-seeded Houston in the Western Conference standings.
“I don’t think that is something that the guys are looking at,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “I think it’s all about our play, and whatever happens with everybody else, that’s what happens.”
Durant’s 50 points were his most with the Warriors and four shy of his career high. Though Durant shot 17-for-27 from the field, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson needed a combined 32 shots to total 34 points. Golden State mined only 16 points from its reserves on a night Damian Lillard (44 points, eight assists), CJ McCollum (29 points) and Jusuf Nurkic (17 points, 13 rebounds) paced the Trail Blazers.
The Warriors’ fourth loss in eight games wasn’t for a lack of effort from Durant. With the outcome hanging in the balance down the stretch, he was aggressive, hoisting shots almost every time he touched the ball.
In the span of one minute, 40 seconds, Durant hit two jumpers, a three-pointer and two foul shots to cut Golden State’s deficit to 117-115 with 1:29 left. After failing to capitalize down the stretch, however, he was left to watch as Lillard stepped to the free-throw line with 7.8 seconds remaining as a capacity crowd chanted, “M-V-P! M-V-P!.”
“The whole game, even when we were struggling, (Durant) was the one who really had it going for us,” said forward Draymond Green, who finished with 16 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, two steals, four blocks and no turnovers.
For more than two weeks, the Warriors have admittedly been eager for the All-Star break. Getting through the doldrums of February is even trickier for a team trying to play deep into June for the fourth straight year.
Familiar issues — turnovers, suspect defense, technical fouls — resurfaced during Golden State’s recent 1-3 rut. After Kerr told his players that mental fatigue no longer could be an excuse, the Warriors began to pull out of their malaise, winning three games by a combined 81 points.
Lost in that resurgence was the fact that slow starts remained a problem. Two nights after routing Phoenix by 46 points, Golden State opened sloppily, piling up six early turnovers and leaving shooters wide open. By late in the first quarter, the Warriors were staring down a 38-18 hole.
“We didn’t have much aggression in the first quarter,” Curry said. “I guess a team that plays the way that they do, and takes the shots that they take, if they’re having a good night, we have to take care of the other end and have good possessions.”
Unlike the previous three times this season it trailed by at least 13 points after one, when Golden State stormed back to win, it couldn’t complete its comeback. The Warriors used a 22-11 run to close the gap to 74-73 midway through the third, only to stagnate offensively at critical moments.
After Curry hit a three-pointer midway through the fourth quarter to knot the game 99-99, Portland unleashed a 10-2 spurt to build an eight-point cushion. Now, as it prepares for a much-appreciated midseason respite, Golden State is hardly fretting.
“I think we’re in a really good position,” Kerr said. “I loved our fight tonight. The last three quarters, we fought like crazy, but it was hard when you dig yourself a 20-point hole on the road against a great offensive team.”
Friday: Rising Stars challenge,
6 p.m. TNT
Saturday: Skills challenge, Three-point contest (featuring Klay Thompson), Slam-dunk contest, 5 p.m. TNT
Sunday: All-Star Game,
5:15 p.m. TNT