Steph Curry and the Warriors start their quest to get back to the Finals against the Trail Blazers
The Western Conference is stuffed with compelling matchups but if you’re grading first-round series’ based on the potential for fantastic late night games, it’s hard to go wrong with the compelling pairing of the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors. Look past the two seed lines and mismatched records, this series features plenty of superstars, lots of offense and a handful of fascinating one-on-ones that are worth tuning in for alone.
The headliner is not surprisingly the West’s best team of the past three seasons in the Warriors, who cruised to a league-best 67 wins behind their potent trio of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. While the middle name of that group has spent a good chunk of the back half of the season on the bench with a knee injury, the other two have more than made up for the loss and continued to keep the team’s incredible offense humming. Durant has returned to the lineup in the past week though, making the starting five even more lethal and offering head coach Steve Kerr even more flexibility on defense.
On the opposite side is Oakland native Damian Lillard and his cast of confident shooters, who ran off 10 wins in their final 14 games to sneak into the final spot in the West. While you normally wouldn’t think of drawing the top-seeded Warriors in the playoffs is much of a reward for all that effort, this Trail Blazers squad is actually pretty excited at the prospect of playing the underdog and slaying an NBA Goliath over the next few weeks.
It won’t be easy to do so however, as Golden State swept the four-game regular season series and did so by averaging more than120 points per game. The pair haven’t met since January however and undergone significant changes since then so this is a much different ball game than some of the numbers suggest. While we probably should be a tad disappointed that two teams of this caliber are meeting so early in the NBA playoffs, the flip side is one of the most fascinating set of first-round games in the Western Conference.
No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers (41-41) vs. No. 1 Golden State Warriors (67-15)
Game 1 – Sunday, April 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Game 2 – Wednesday, April 19 at 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 3 – Saturday, April 22 at 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Game 4 – Monday, April 24 at 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary) – Wednesday, April 26
Game 6 (if necessary) – Friday, April 28
Game 7 (if necessary) – Sunday, April 30
Note: Games 1, 2, 5, 7 will be played at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., while Games 3, 4, 6 will be at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore.
Keys for Portland
Health may be the biggest factor for the Trail Blazers if they’re to make a run at a career-defining upset this year. Though every team is banged up after the grueling 82-game schedule, Portland has a host of key players who will need to be monitored during this series. If the team wants to take some of the scoring load off of Damian Lillard and running mate C.J. McCollum that means that Allen Crabbe needs to be good to go. He was dealing with foot issues that caused him to spend the past several games in a boot on the bench but is apparently fine for this series. Keeping him in the game and not in street clothes is going to be pretty important for a team already behind the eight-ball in terms of talent.
As big as Crabbe’s injury is, the one to center Jusuf Nurkic looms even larger. The double-double machine could hold a huge advantage in the paint if he’s in the lineup but it remains to be seen if that will actually be the case come tip-off in Game 1. Nurkic was a difference-maker once he arrived from Denver and played a big role in the playoff push despite eventually winding up with a right leg fracture. The drop-off to Meyers Leonard is steep and it goes without saying that one can’t be shorthanded against a team like the Warriors and expect to pull out four victories.
Outside of those two however, one area to really pay attention to is if Portland can take advantage of being physical in the backcourt on defense. Both of the team’s starting guards are a tad smaller than Klay Thompson but it’s possible to really make life much tougher for Steph Curry on both ends of the court. Tiring out the league MVP doesn’t always work given the amount of stars on the other bench but it has proven to be a useful strategy to use against the team everybody is aiming to beat.
Keys for Golden State
As good as the Warriors have been, this isn’t an opponent they can just show up to the arena and beat. Steve Kerr knows this and so does his group of veteran players, most of whom know exactly what it takes to not only survive the first round but make it all the way to the Finals in June. With the intensity turned up to the max as a result, all eyes will be on how well this team plays and particularly when it comes to the return of Kevin Durant.
Prior to the injury that caused him to miss 19 games, Golden State was just starting to hit its stride in terms of integrating the former league MVP into the lineup. With so many talented shooters and offensive threats, it goes without saying that finding minutes and shots for everybody was going to be a challenge but Steph Curry and the rest of the team eventually found their rhythm mid-season. That was broken up with Durant out of the lineup so it will be interesting to track how well the ball moves around with him back in the starting five and logging significant minutes with the pressure turned way, way up in the postseason. If things are not flowing as crisply as we’re used to seeing, don’t be surprised if Kerr is forced to make adjustments in terms of both play calls and the lineup to make sure things go smoothly for the No. 1 seed.
Aside from the starters though, the Warriors can really take advantage of their diverse options off the bench in this kind of series and really hammer home their frontcourt’s ability to get up and down on both ends of the floor. Being able to insert somebody like Andre Iguodala is truly a luxury few teams have and is one area where the team really needs to be able to extend leads when the time comes.
In the past three decades, the No. 8 seed has pulled off the unthinkable and upset the top seed in the NBA playoffs just five times. Warriors fans know this better than most having pulled it off 10 years ago against the Dallas Mavericks, but the team is certainly hoping history does not repeat itself here.
The Trail Blazers are not backing down from the challenge however and may even be secretly excited over the prospect of doing just that. Star guard Damian Lillard has not shied away from the attention offered by the first-round matchup and has even publicly stated that Portland will advance in six games. That may be some bold talking only a handful of underdogs can do but it fits the mentality of a Portland team this season that has been through plenty of ups and downs.
Staring them down however is the best team in the league by a significant margin. Last year’s painful ending to the Finals has only added fuel to the fire inside of this team that managed to add an NBA MVP to the starting lineup as part of the impressive response to 2016’s letdown. This group is hungry and experienced enough that all the brash talk coming out of the other locker room is very unlikely to faze them.
This has not been the smoothest path to the playoffs for either side but the fact is, Golden State is the better team in just about every area across the board. Given the injuries that Portland is dealing with right now, it’s hard to go with the team from the Pacific Northwest in this West Coast battle and it wouldn’t at all be that shocking to see a sweep. Despite the potential for a lop-sided series in terms of wins and losses, this one should be a thrilling first-round matchup that won’t lack highlights on the offensive end of the floor.
Prediction: Warriors in five
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Steph Curry photo courtesy of Getty Images)