NBA Playoffs Preview: Warriors vs. Trail Blazers
The Golden State Warriors have once again finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA, but as hard as this is to believe, this version of the Warriors has more riding on its postseason success than the Warriors of recent years.
For Durant, this is his latest shot at the ever-elusive championship ring and his first as a "villain" to some in the NBA community for joining a team that went 73-9 last year. For returning players such as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, this is their opportunity to redeem themselves after blowing a 3-1 series lead in the Finals and falling short of finishing the best season in NBA history.
The common goal between all of them, of course, is winning the NBA title.
Their first opponent on the road back to the mountaintop is the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that has only beaten Golden State once in the past three seasons. Portland reached the playoffs as the Western Conference's 8 seed, using an 18-8 record after the All-Star Break to separate themselves from the field and outlast the Denver Nuggets for the final spot.
Portland relies heavily on the success of their two starting guards, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who account for nearly half of the Blazers' 108 points per game. Additionally, the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic at the trade deadline helped spark Portland from 10 games under .500 to a playoff spot, but a knee injury that has sidelined Nurkic for the past two weeks will be a huge story throughout the series, even if he is ready for Game 1.
The masses have been penciling the Warriors into the NBA Finals from the start of the season, and they have not done much of anything to deter prognosticators from putting them there now that we have reached the playoffs, but is there any chance the Trail Blazers can push Golden State in the first round?
Golden State Warriors (1)
Championship Odds: 38.9%
Portland Trail Blazers (8)
Championship Odds: 0.5%
Regular Season Series - Warriors 4, Trail Blazers 0
The Warriors swept the season series against Portland this year, winning by an average of 19.5 points per game, including victories of 45 and 2.
The closest meeting of the four came without an appearance from Steph Curry, which C.J McCollum took advantage of to the tune of 28 points on 5-for-7 three-point shooting. The second-closest matchup between these two, an eight-point win for Golden State, did not include Damian Lillard, but was Portland's best offensive showing of the four.
The other two meetings were dominated by the Warriors and should be viewed as the worst-case scenario for Portland's hope in this series. In those games, Golden State shot 57 percent and averaged 131 points per game.
Durant was especially efficient in those games, but that could be said for his entire season against Portland. He averaged 29 points per game on 10-for-17 shooting as it appeared the Blazers seemingly had no answer for him.
Curry also had some solid performances against the Blazers this season, averaging 27 points per game and shooting a shade under 50 percent from three-point range.
Portland was able to excel when it came to limiting the effectiveness of Thompson. Thompson typically shoots 47 percent and 42 percent from two and three, respectively, but the Blazers held him to 35 percent and 16 percent on the season. He did have a 27-point effort in their final meeting of the season, but the damage came from the free throw line, as he only shot 6-for-21 from the floor.
The Warriors were also able to do a good job of keeping Lillard and McCollum at bay. McCollum's two better games came when Lillard did not play and when Curry did not play. He only averaged 13 points per game in the other games and managed to shoot 6-for-20 from three in games Curry played.
On the contrary, Lillard had his better games in the earlier meetings when Portland got blown out, averaging 25.5 points per contest.
How the Warriors Can Win
Golden State just needs to be healthy and stay that way throughout the series to get out of the first round. Durant will be working himself back to full strength as the series goes along, and without any setbacks, the team will be firing on all cylinders by the end of it.
The first round last year is also when Curry got banged up, and he never looked the same after.
Not to oversimplify things, but Golden State just needs to do what they do. What that means is run a fast pace, make shots, and play good defense. In their earlier two meetings this season, the Warriors did just that, hitting 57 percent of their shots, including 44 percent from three, and limiting Portland to 41 percent total and 33 percent from three.
For the entire season, Golden State ranks 1st in offensive rating and 2nd in defensive rating, while the Blazers rank 11th and 24th, respectively. The Warriors should be able to use their highly efficient shooting to outpace and take advantage of a Portland three-point defense that ranked 27th in the league in three-point percentage against but a stellar 6th in terms of three-point attempt rate allowed, a better measure of perimeter defense.
It will still take the team a little while to work their way back to total cohesion, but if Durant's last game of the season was any indication of his health, the Warriors should not be worried one bit. When combined with the recent hot shooting of Curry, who is lighting up the three-point line at a 49 percent clip over the past 15 games, this would be a monumental collapse if the Warriors did not advance to the next round.
Warriors Player to Watch - Kevin Durant
It will be important to keep an eye on Durant as the series progresses. He has only played three games since returning from injury, and it will be important for the Warriors to monitor his health.
While the Warriors were able to adapt to life without KD, running off their last 13 games without him, it was not an simple transition. Golden State lost five of their first seven games without him, including the game in which he was injured.
They averaged just under 100 points per game in those seven and managed 87 points or fewer three times, a mark they did not attain any other time during the season. Although they were able to beat some very good teams, such as Houston twice and San Antonio without Durant, it would be tough for them to do in a full series against a high level opponent without him.
With the type of efficient season Durant was having before the injury, it is hard to see how Portland would be able to slow him down.
How the Trail Blazers Can Win
A Trail Blazers' series victory is highly unlikely, coming in at a 12.8% chance according to our algorithm, making Portland the least likely team to reach the second round. To have a realistic chance in this series, the Blazers may want to invest in a Kevin Durant or Steph Curry voodoo doll.
But in all seriousness, the couple spots where the Warriors struggle is keeping teams off the offensive glass and being forced into too many turnovers. Unfortunately for Portland, they are not especially good in the areas necessary to exploit these shortcomings in the Warriors' game.
The Blazers can try to attack Golden State with one of their strengths: three-point shooting.
Portland ranks sixth in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage while taking a near league average 32 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. This is where Lillard and McCollum can shine, shooting 37 and 42 percent, respectively, on the season while taking 5-plus attempts per game.
They will also need the likes of Allen Crabbe, a 44-percent shooter from three, to get hot in a few games to help the cause. This will, however, be a tough game plan for Portland to lean on because the Warriors lead the NBA in three-point defense this season and allow three-pointers at an average rate.
Additionally, they will need Jusuf Nurkic to play a large role on the inside.
Trail Blazers Player to Watch - Jusuf Nurkic
Nurkic nearly doubled his averages in points, rebounds, and assists when he arrived from Denver after he became a starter and saw a healthy increase in minutes. His 15 points and 8 rebounds per game would be a solid addition back into the Portland lineup and would be sorely needed for Rip City to have a shot in this series.
Nurkic was not on the team for any of the four meetings with Golden State, and based solely on their performance after his arrival, they would have a better chance at giving the Warriors trouble if he is there.
If Nurkic is unable to go in this series and you are unable to watch him, all eyes will turn to Lillard and McCollum because Portland will only go as far as those two can carry them. However, given the way Golden State dispatched the Blazers in their four meetings, it is a formula that is unlikely to work.
The Warriors are exactly in the place everyone believed they would be after they signed Durant in the offseason. They are the 1 seed in the West and the odds-on favorite to take home their second NBA title in three years. After winning 67 games, the Warriors' real season starts now, and this is when they can really learn from last season's wounds.
According to our algorithms: Warriors are 87.17% favorites.
My final prediction: Warriors in 5.