- The Blazers couldn't have scripted a better start in the NBA playoffs but do they have a realistic shot at beating the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals? For Portland, any potential upset over Golden State begins and ends with Damian Lillard.
It’s been a charmed postseason for Portland prior to its Western Conference finals matchup with the Warriors beginning on Tuesday. Damian Lillard bombed his way past Oklahoma City in round one with one of the greatest game-winners in league history and C.J. McCollum carried the load with 37 points in Game 7 against the Nuggets on Sunday. Portland’s headliners haven’t shouldered the load alone, either. The Blazers first two rounds were littered with quality performances from Evan Turner, Rodney Hood, Zach Collins and Enes Kanter. Head coach Terry Stotts couldn’t have scripted a better first 12 games of the postseason.
The joyride may abruptly end within the next ten days. Golden State is the league’s preeminent buzzsaw, slashing Finals hopes since 2015. Even without Kevin Durant, the Warriors are a worthy one seed; just ask James Harden. Portland reaching the Finals would mark one of the league’s biggest upsets this decade, possibly vaulting ahead of the Mavs’ victory over LeBron and the Heat in 2011. Ye the Dubs’ dynasty is unlikely to end with a dud.
Pardon the pessimism, but we’ve seen this battle before. Golden State ended Portland’s season in 2016 and 2017, winning eight of nine games including a sweep in 2017. Steph Curry has been particularly potent against the Blazers’ undersized guards, averaging 29.6 points per game while shooting 52.2% from three. Thompson buried Portland in his first postseason battle against his neighbors to the north, averaging 31 per game on a cool 50% from deep. The Blazers don’t have the perimeter personnel to defend the Splash Brothers. Add Durant, and a roadmap to the Finals is virtually non-existent.
We should take a moment to consider a series victory for Portland, searching for ways in which the Blazers can end a historic dynasty. Any potential upset conversation begins and ends with Damian Lillard. He’ll need to be the best player in the series for Portland to have even a remote chance. Will he be up to the task? An uphill battle awaits.
Lillard has fought valiantly in his past two series against the Warriors, crossing the 30-point mark in five of nine games. His efficiency, though, leaves much to be desired. He’s shot just 37% from the field vs. Golden State in the playoffs, a marked dip below his previous season-worst mark of 41.9%. Golden State has the length to corral Lillard on the perimeter, and Draymond Green is the league’s smartest defender. He’s an elite defender near the tin and more-than-serviceable in space. Lillard should attack Curry at every opportunity. Any other defender provides at least a solid challenge, with plus-defenders in Thompson and Andre Iguodala leading the charge alongside Green. Don’t expect many easy looks for Lillard. One of the league’s premier shotmakers will have to be atop his game to even push the Warriors past five games.
Portland’s perimeter talent should generate enough points for at least one home victory. But a sizeable defensive adjustment is necessary to make this series interesting. This is where any argument for the Blazers falls apart, especially without Jusuf Nurkic. Portland surrendered 113.5 points per 100 possessions against Denver, a mark that would rank No. 28 in the regular season. Enes Kanter is a turnstile. Collins and Meyers Leonard are of little deterrence at the rim, and Lillard is a significant net-negative defensively. Maybe Al-Farouq Aminu can add some size and switchability, though his current shooting slump may keep him off the floor. Portland would be well-served to up the pace at every opportunity and encourage a track meet. Golden State could supply the turnovers while Portland racks up threes, especially in the friendly confines of the Moda Center. Running against Golden State was previously a death wish. It may be Portland’s best hope.
There’s the potential threat of a letdown for Golden State in the West finals. Battling Houston is emotionally draining and a fifth-straight Finals appearance looms. Perhaps Durant could add chemistry questions with a return midway through the series. But these scenarios are more longshot lottery tickets than potential outcomes. Golden State’s biggest test in the West came a round early. A quick dispatch of Portland will bring additional rest for the Finals, a significant carrot for an aging group. The Warriors are in prime position for a fast start on Tuesday and a quick trip to the Finals against the overmatched Blazers. Anything short of a historic effort from Lillard won't dethrone the champs.