OAKLAND (United States) • Everyone expected that the guy who did not play in Game 1 of the National Basketball Association's Western Conference semi-finals between the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers would eventually have an impact on the series.
But who would have thought that the guy would be Warriors back-up centre Festus Ezeli?
The Nigerian came off the bench to ignite a defence that held the Trail Blazers to three field goals over the final 9min 2sec of the game on Tuesday, rallying the Warriors from an 11-point deficit to a 110-99 victory in Game 2.
With the Warriors up 2-0 despite playing without injured star Stephen Curry, the best-of-seven series moves to Portland for Game 3 on Saturday.
Ezeli, who never left the bench in Golden State's Game 1 victory last Sunday, was the backbone of a dominant defensive effort in the fourth quarter of Game 2 after sitting out its first 31:52.
He added four hoops, three in the final period, as the Warriors outscored the Trail Blazers 34-12 after entering the fourth quarter down 76-87.
"He changed the whole game," said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who had played Andrew Bogut, Anderson Varejao and Marreese Speights at centre over the first six-plus quarters of the series. "Phenomenal effort."
The 26-year-old hit three consecutive shots early in the fourth quarter, including one to open a 9-0 burst that got the Warriors even at 91-all with 6:44 to play.
Portland still led 95-94 after a Moe Harkless basket with 5:21 to play. However, by the time C.J. McCollum converted their next field goal, a short shot with 8.9sec to go, Golden State had run off to a 13-point lead.
"I trust the coaches," Ezeli said of his mindset while sitting out almost the first 80 minutes of the series. "Our job is to stay ready and be ready to make an impact."
While the Trail Blazers were going seven consecutive possessions without a point, the Warriors got two baskets from Curry's replacement, Shaun Livingston, in a 10-0 burst that put Golden State in command at 104-95 with 1:47 to go.
Portland shot just 5-of-19 in the final period. Star point guard Damian Lillard, after a 17-point third quarter, had a scoreless fourth quarter on 0-of-3 shooting.
"You've got to give credit to Festus just for being prepared," Lillard said. "They committed more attention to our guards. Festus did a good job just being a presence."
Despite missing 13 of his 20 shots, Warriors guard Klay Thompson led all scorers with 27 points.
Draymond Green recorded game highs in rebounds (14) and assists (seven) to complement 17 points for the Warriors, who recorded their sixth consecutive double-digit home win over Portland.
Andre Iguodala (15 points), Livingston (14) and Harrison Barnes (13) also scored in double figures for the Warriors, who shot 46.2 per cent from the field.
"Game 2s always scare me, especially if you won the first one relatively easily like we did," Kerr said. "It just happens. It's human nature. The other team comes out angry, (and) maybe you let your guard down a little bit."
Lillard felt that was exactly what the Trail Blazers did in the final quarter, especially with the game on the line in the final six minutes.
"They were desperate," the Oakland-born player said of the Warriors' late-game approach. "It got to the point where it was win or lose. They played desperate, and we just didn't respond to it well enough to finish the game.
He had 25 points and McCollum 22 for the Trail Blazers, who shot 44.4 per cent for the game. The backcourt duo combined to make just three of nine shots in the fourth quarter, however, with McCollum getting all three.
"This was a perfect opportunity," said Lillard, who connected on six three-pointers and also had six assists. "We should really be happy with the way we played for most of the game because it lets us know that we can get it done."
Al-Farouq Aminu (14 points), Gerald Henderson (12) and Harkless (11) also scored in double figures for Portland, who lost the first two road games in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers before rebounding with four consecutive wins.
"We have a lot of confidence going back to the Moda Centre," Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
"We can get a little momentum on how we played in Game 2."