NBA playoff preview: Warriors-Blazers pits champs against underdogs
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Two of the West’s first-round favorites lost their All-Star point guards last week, but only one lived to tell about it. After dumping the lifeless Rockets in five games, the Warriors will open the second chapter of their title defense without Stephen Curry, who remains sidelined with an MCL sprain. Their opponent? The Blazers, who capitalized on Chris Paul’s broken hand to upset the Clippers in six games.
Curry’s eventual return has the potential to break the internet and turn this into a totally one-sided series. There’s just one problem: It’s not totally clear when he’ll be back on the court. The Warriors announced on April 25 that Curry would be reevaluated in two weeks (May 9), and he hasn’t suffered any known setbacks over the last five days. Every day counts here, as Portland is set to host Game 4 on May 9.
Assuming Curry plays a meaningful portion of this series, Golden State should be regarded as strong favorites. Indeed, the Warriors, at full strength, would be by far and away the biggest favorite of the four second-round matchups, as judged by regular-season point differential. Note that the 73-win Warriors (+10.8) had the highest regular-season point differential of the remaining playoff teams while the 44-win Blazers had the lowest (+0.8). The net point differential between the two teams vastly exceeds the other matchups that are set (Spurs/Thunder and Cavaliers/Hawks) and any of the possible combinations in the one series that’s still to be determined (Raptors/Pacers vs. Hornets/Heat).
What’s more, when surveying the Warriors’ playoff opponents by record and point differential over the last two years, the Blazers are most similar to the 2015 Pelicans (45 wins, +0.8) and the 2016 Rockets (41 wins, +0.2). As a reminder, Golden State swept New Orleans last year and knocked out Houston in five this year, with three of its wins coming by 26+ points.
To really underscore the disparate expectations for these two teams, however, it’s best to rewind to October. In its preseason over/under lines, the oddsmaking service Bovada set the Warriors’ line at 59.5 wins, which was the highest mark in the league. Meanwhile, the rebuilding Blazers were set at 27.5 wins, tied for the second-fewest (topping only the Sixers). Both teams smashed those expectations, but the Warriors made the jump from great to historic, while the Blazers leapt from afterthought to respectable.
So, even with the uncertainty around Curry, this series sets up along tidy lines: The life-of-the-party Warriors versus the party-crashing Blazers.
Although Portland’s upset of L.A. qualifies as a surprise, it was expected once both Paul and Blake Griffin were sidelined. Repeating the feat against the Warriors, even if Curry doesn’t play a minute, would be nothing short of a true shocker.
The major indicators all favor the Warriors: their offense was much better, their defense was much better, their roster is deeper, more experienced and more decorated, their core group has played together for far longer, they have the best all-around player in the series (Curry and Draymond Green go one-two), and they won the season series 3-1 with all three wins coming by 16+ points.
With Curry healthy, Golden State arguably holds match-up advantages at all five starting positions. Even without Curry, the Warriors have the perimeter length and sound paint defense to make life difficult for Damian Lillard.
There’s also the rest and preparation factors: Portland will have less than two days to turn around for an early tip on Sunday after closing out on Friday while Golden State has been off since Wednesday.
Already, that’s a pretty strong case for the Warriors. But perhaps most impressive was their resolve in the wake of losing Curry to both ankle and knee injuries during the first-round against the Rockets. Yes, Houston was practically begging to be sent into the offseason, but Golden State made it happen in impressive fashion thanks to a staunch defense.
During the regular season, Houston posted a 105.5 offensive rating, which was just a touch worse than Portland (106.1). During the playoffs, that dropped all the way to 89.2, dead last among the 16 playoff teams. With the time to build and adjust defensive game plans for James Harden, the Warriors were able to hold the Rockets’ All-Star guard to 26.6 PPG on 41 FG% and 31 3P%, all meaningfully below his regular season averages (29 PPG, 43.9 FG%, 35.9%). Although Harden did sink a nice game-winner in Houston’s only victory, Golden State’s ability to keep him bottled up for the vast majority of the series was a quick checkmate.
If the Warriors can duplicate that success against Lillard, this should be a quick series. With Paul and Griffin healthy, the Clippers were able to pressure, trap and frustrate Lillard on their way to blowout wins in Games 1 and 2 at home. Portland’s supporting cast members have stepped up in the playoffs – Mason Plumlee, Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu have all had their moments – but Lillard will be the key to keeping pace with the high-octane Warriors. Kerr is in position to throw plenty of extra attention Lillard’s way, knowing that his wings and bigs can recover to their other assignments more quickly and effectively than their Clippers’ counterparts.
Of course, if the Warriors’ defense doesn’t swallow you up, their offense can mow you over. Portland struggled to deal with Paul in the first round and Curry will present a major matchup problem if and when he returns. Lillard and CJ McCollum aren’t equipped to stay with him, forcing Stotts to consider using someone like Harkless in cross-matchups. Paul found success against any and all of the Blazers’ defensive looks, and Curry is a better outside shooter and he has more weapons surrounding him. Portland’s defense will often find itself closing its eyes and praying for misses.
The Blazers are big underdogs, but they’re not without reasons for hope. Here are five:
1. Portland knows it can beat Golden State
The Blazers dealt the Warriors one of their nine regular-season losses. It wasn’t any old loss. In the first game back after the All-Star break, Portland pounded Golden State 137-103, dealing the Warriors their worst loss of the season (34 points) and putting up a season-high for opponent points. That night, Lillard exploded for a career-high 51 points, turning in the type of singular performance necessary to push a team as sound as the Warriors.
2. Portland has bulletin board material.
No team in the playoffs plays the “Nobody believes in us” card harder and more often than the Blazers. There are so many aggrieved hashtags that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Nevertheless, the Blazers took two pieces of bulletin board material from their victory over the Warriors: First, Klay Thompson said that Portland’s win was “a fluke” – an idea that Lillard, an Oakland native, disputed on social media. Second, Kerr told reporters that Lillard “looked like Steph Curry out there” – another idea that Lillard quickly rejected, making it clear that he wanted to be viewed as his own man. Golden State won the next two games against Portland in convincing fashion, perhaps only furthering the bitterness.
3. Portland needs help and got it.
As is stands, the Blazers should get at least two and perhaps as many as four or five games against the Warriors without Curry in the lineup. Although Golden State fared very well against Houston in his absence (see below), there’s no question that Curry expands the Warriors’ margin for error. Knocking off a great team requires some degree of luck; Curry’s slip on the wet spot is a giant four-leaf clover’s worth of basketball luck. On the other side, the Blazers are without stretch big man Meyers Leonard, who has been out since mid-March, but are otherwise in good shape health-wise.
4. Building some momentum.
The Blazers didn’t blow the doors off against the Clippers, but they did make progress as the series unfolded: Lillard shook off some early shooting slumps to get going; McCollum found more scoring opportunities late in the series; Plumlee emerged as a passing and rebounding machine in Griffin’s absence; and weak-shooting forwards Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu each had a nice night from outside in wins. Although the quick turnaround represents a rough set of circumstances for Portland, at least it enters the second-round riding four straight wins. Plus, the level-headed Blazers still feel like they haven’t really reached their peak potential on offense.
“I didn’t shoot great over the course of this series,” Lillard said after Game 6. “CJ Didn’t shoot great over the course of the series. We had a lot of times we counted on other guys. The other guys answered the call and stepped up.”
5. Nothing to lose.
This is Portland’s biggest advantage. Simply put, the Blazers could get swept, losing all four games by 40+ points, and their season still would be viewed as a grand slam home run. McCollum was named Most Improved Player, Stotts was the Coach of the Year runner-up, a host of complementary contributors enjoyed career years, and Lillard smoothly settled into life as an alpha dog. To quote The Notorious B.I.G.: “It’s all good, bay-ba-baby.”
The exact opposite is true for the Warriors, who face the ever-present “Will their 73 wins be tarnished?” discussion after seemingly each and every loss. While the expectations game doesn’t seem to faze the Warriors at this point, their first-round series was a bumpier ride off the court than most anticipated due to Curry’s injury. Portland is dangerous because it can dream about pulling a monumental upset without any self-consciousness. They really, truly are supposed to lose. “When people say we don’t have a chance, that’s the most fun for me,” Lillard said. That should be enough to inspire a few gulps in the Bay Area.
The X-Factor: Stephen Curry
Usually, the reigning league MVP is overqualified to be an X-factor, but Curry counts as an exception because he represents the biggest unknown for an otherwise locked-in group. This isn’t quite as simple as, “When will he return to the court?” There are other pertinent questions like, “When will he get back into his rhythm?” and “Will he be able to avoid re-injury?” and “What happens if another key Warriors player suffers a fluke injury while he’s out?” and “Can the Warriors effectively manage the distractions and scrutiny that are sure to pop up as his return date gets closer?”
Golden State’s steadiness throughout its 2015 postseason run and its panic-free response to Curry’s knee injury in Games 4 and 5 against Houston suggests the champs will have strong answers to all of those questions. But there’s no telling until this plays out, and Houston’s sole victory came when Curry was out of the lineup.
That said, it’s worth noting exactly how well the Warriors performed against the Rockets without Curry, given that not that much separated the Rockets and Blazers during the regular season.
With Stephen Curry: 110.9 Off. Rating, 80.8 Def. Rating, +28 in 38 minutes
Without Stephen Curry: 110 Off. Rating, 90.9 Def. Rating, +66 in 202 minutes
Portland will have its hands full if Green (the distributor) and Thompson (the gunner) can continue to keep Golden State’s offense humming in Curry’s absence.
Warriors in 5. Would the Warriors have rather played the shorthanded Clippers instead of the Blazers? Of course. But would the Warriors rather play these Blazers or the Clippers at full strength (their assumed opponent for months)? The numbers strongly suggest that Portland is the easier draw. While the Blazers have a stronger backbone, a clearer mind and a better home-court advantage than the Rockets, they will likely run into many of the same problems – too many holes to plug defensively, too few auxiliary scoring threats, too much pandemonium at Oracle Arena -- as the Warriors’ first-round opponent. Look for Portland to suffer a similar fate as Houston.