BDL's 2016-17 NBA Playoff Previews: Golden State Warriors vs. Portland Trail Blazers


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How They Got Here

• Golden State: Any discussion of the 2016-17 Warriors must start last June. Blowing a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals set the stage for a reevaluation in the offseason and created a situation in which signing Kevin Durant after a 73-win season suddenly wasn’t so far-fetched. Adding another superstar required a near-total readjustment of the bench, but it was worth it. The Warriors entered the regular season not just as favorites to win the title, but as a team expected to look like one of the best ever.

The results have been pretty good. The Warriors won 67 games to finish with the NBA’s best record for the third-straight season, ranked first in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency, put up a plus-11.6 average point differential (four points ahead of the next-closest team). Curry and Durant didn’t always look super comfortable playing together, but it’s also not as if they were a walking disaster. Klay Thompson took on the role of third option better than most had assumed he would, Draymond Green continued to hold the whole operation together with his boundless versatility, and Andre Iguodala figures to be a top Sixth Man of the Year finisher. Golden State even managed to turn JaVale McGee into a useful player.

Nevertheless, the No. 1 seed was not assured up until the final weeks of the season. Durant “went down with a knee injury on February 28 in his hometown of Washington, D.C. during a hellish portion of the schedule in which the Warriors played eight games in eight cities all over the country over a period of just 13 days. Estimates had Durant out for a month, which opened up the race for the West’s top spot and put a strain on the remaining roster. The team’s performance over that stretch led to an unprecedented regular season skid in the Steve Kerr era — three straight losses, five losses in seven games, and a sense that the inevitable was anything but.

Then the Warriors finally got a few games in a row at home and the skid turned on to one of their best stretches of the season. A narrow win over the Philadelphia 76ers on March 14 started a 14-game winning streak that only ended this Monday, when the Warriors had nothing to play for and didn’t push anyone’s minutes too far. A combination of elite defense and a seriously hot stretch for Curry led to one of the most complete stretches of basketball any team played this season, and the Warriors immediately morphed from vulnerable power back into a dominant favorite.

Expect a big series from Kevin Durant against the Blazers. (AP)

It’s worth noting that all but the last of the wins in that streak came without Durant, which could be interpreted as a sign that the Warriors still aren’t entirely comfortable with their new superstar. On the other hand, the fact that a team can win 13 games in a row without one of the five best players in the NBA is downright scary. No other team in the league could dream of doing the same, and that’s why they’re clear favorites to win a second title in three years.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the Warriors haven’t felt pressure like they’re going to feel over the next two months (or however long they stay alive). Every loss will be attended by jokes about blowing a 3-1 lead or criticism that this group doesn’t have the mental fortitude to live up to the lofty expectations heaped upon them. Golden State was always going to be judged by their ability to win a championship, and that challenge begins in earnest now.

• Portland: The Blazers entered this season hoping to build off the successes of a surprising playoff berth and impressive performance in an elimination at the hands of the heavily favored Warriors. After a few months, though, it appeared that management had committed too heavily to a middling group. Portland entered the All-Star break at 23-33 and seemed to have regressed, or at least taken especially poorly to stagnation. Franchise star Damian Lillard kept his scoring average up but became less efficient and lost some of his status to backcourt mate C.J. McCollum, free-agent acquisition Evan Turner looked like as much of an overpay as analysts feared, and big man Mason Plumlee utterly failed to follow through on preseason talk of regular triple-doubles. An injury to forward Al-Farouq Aminu exposed just how little flexibility the rest of the roster had, and the Blazers ended up getting locked into shootouts with pretty much everyone they played.

Then one trade changed everything. General manager Neil Olshey dealt Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets for center Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick on February 12, a deal that seemed like a way for Portland to get value for a player before he hit restricted free agency. It turned out to be the steal of this season. Nurkic entered the starting lineup and transformed the Blazers, offering a dose of much-needed interior nastiness, a true threat in the pick-and-roll with Lillard and McCollum, and a lot of swagger. His presence reenergized the Portland attack, and a team that otherwise felt like a disappointment took over the race for the West’s final playoff spot and seemed poised to enter the postseason as a real threat.

The Warriors have not seen Jusuf Nurkic in a Trail Blazers uniform. (AP)

Unfortunately, Nurkic suffered a leg fracture in late March and was announced to be out for at least two weeks. The Blazers held on to their lead over the Nuggets to clinch a playoff berth in the season’s final days (with some help from Russell Westbrook), but they clearly lacked the same flair as with Nurkic and aren’t flying into the playoffs. Nurkic’s original schedule had him set to be reevaluated on Friday, but even a return to action for Game 1 doesn’t promise full health. Without him, the Blazers rely heavily on Lillard and McCollum, a recipe that works late in the season but doesn’t tend to result in upsetting heavily favored title contenders.

Regardless of how this series goes, though, the Blazers’ late-season charge allowed them to save face and reclaim some faith in this group. If they hadn’t rebounded to make the postseason, it’s likely that this summer would have brought significant changes.

Head-to-Head

Four matchups brought four wins for the Warriors, which is why it’s hard to imagine the Blazers winning more than a game in this series. Sweeping a team by an average margin of 19 points tends to make a statement.

There was some variation in those scores, though, so let’s dig in a bit. The first matchup came at Oracle Arena on just the eighth day of the season and saw the Warriors win 127-104 with 56.2 percent shooting. Yet that was mere prelude to the devastation to come on December 14 at Moda Center, when the Warriors won 135-90 in a game that Terry Stotts called “embarrassing.” Durant scored 34 to lead the victors, but the story again was Portland’s inability to defend anyone. The Warriors shot 58.6 percent and made half of their 28 three-point attempts.

The next two were at least a little closer. The Warriors won 125-117 on January 4 as Durant and Curry both topped 30 points — the good news for the Blazers was that they stayed relatively close with Lillard out of action. The finale was much tighter as Golden State won 113-111 in Portland in late January, but it’s necessary to note that Curry didn’t play due to stomach flu. Durant was the best player on the floor again, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the Blazers can’t guard him.

The numbers suggest plenty — the Warriors have too many quality offensive players for the Blazers’ defense to handle, Durant could go wild in this series, and Golden State is perfectly comfortable taking part in a shootout with Portland. If there’s anything going for the Blazers, it’s that the Warriors haven’t seen them with Nurkic in the lineup.

Likely Starting Lineups

You’re probably familiar with the Warriors by now. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson form the league’s best backcourt and provide more than just the greatest outside shooting duo the NBA has ever seen. Curry would have been a top-two MVP candidate in a normal year, and Thompson continues to make strides as a ballhandler and can score 30 (or 60) without dribbling more than a few times.

Kevin Durant slid right into the Warriors’ system as a do-everything forward, adding new defensive and facilitation responsibilities away from the pressure of having to score 30 points a night. It’s almost unfair that he and Draymond Green are on on the same team — that kind of versatility is hard to imagine in a forward combination. Green still carries the potential to get in trouble with a few technicals and flagrants, but he’s the heart of the Warriors and the trendy pick for Defensive Player of the Year.

Whoever plays with those five in crunch time depends on matchups. Zaza Pachulia starts at center and rebounds and sets screens — ask him to do much more and you’ll regret it. But there’s no question that the fifth key player on the team is Andre Iguodala, defensive master and secondary facilitator. Along with Green, he’s the player who makes sense of the Warriors. Shaun Livingston is arguably the sixth most important player on the team, a point guard whose length allows him to excel in the team’s defensive system and shoot over smaller defenders in the mid-range.

Reserves include scoring guard Ian Clark, veteran forward David West, and potential future NBA champion JaVale McGee. Each of these players has his moments, but they’re the kind of guys who are just as likely to put up 12 points as they are to come out and struggle a day later. Golden State’s in trouble if they’re depending on any of them.

The Blazers are geared around backcourt stars Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lillard’s reputation took a dip this season as the Warriors struggled and his shooting percentages fell, but the Oakland native came on very strong in the season’s last weeks and especially relishes the opportunity to perform against his hometown team. McCollum followed a Most Improved Player season by getting any better and even got some notice as the guard the Blazers definitely shouldn’t trade when things were going poorly earlier this season.

Maurice Harkless and Noah Vonleh are most likely to start at the forwards, but Al-Farouq Aminu is just as important off the bench. He was especially solid in last season’s Western Conference Semifinals against the Warriors and could see heavy minutes. If Nurkic can’t go, then stretch five Meyers Leonard is likely to start at center.

Allen Crabbe is an especially key reserve — he can get hot in a hurry and should play big minutes if the Blazers have to play from behind. Evan Turner plays a fair amount, too, but as ever it’s hard to know exactly what he’s there to do.

Matchups to Watch

• Golden State vs. bad luck. The Warriors enter the postseason as overwhelming championship favorites for the third season in a row. Teams in their position often do not win, which they learned clearly enough last season. But it’s useful to remember exactly what it took for them to lose to the Cavs in June. Stephen Curry had to injure himself twice and experience several grueling series to feel the effects, Draymond Green had to miss a game due to suspension, Andrew Bogut had to get hurt in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, etc. They didn’t just lose — they were brought to a position where the chances of their loss became much higher.

Can Draymond Green stay out of trouble this postseason? (AP)

The Warriors could probably lose Curry in the first round again and still win this series. They proved they’re capable of it last season against the Houston Rockets, and the Blazers don’t exactly enter the postseason as a surefire threat. Yet it’s possible that a few more bad breaks would increase the sense of dread in Oakland and get the favorites to worry. It might not affect the outcome of this series, but it could start to derail their championship plans.

• Nurkic vs. the Warriors’ bigs. Golden State’s weaknesses inside are a bit overblown, because Durant is a seven-footer who can rebound and block shots and Green regularly bodies bigger players effectively. Regardless, the Blazers don’t have a chance in this series if a) Nurkic doesn’t play and b) he doesn’t make a huge impact on the glass and finishing at the rim. The Warriors are best beaten by teams with athletic defenders capable of guarding multiple positions and big men who force them to commit more players to rebounding. Portland certainly doesn’t have much of the former, so they’re going to have to do their best with the latter. And they only have the potential to do that if Nurkic is healthy.

That’s a big “if,” of course, especially considering that even a healthy Nurkic has never played in the postseason. There’s a big difference between rampaging through listless defenses in March and facing a locked-in title contender in the spring. The complication of his injury and the pressure of encountering the worst possible opponent means that simply getting Nurkic back in the lineup promises nothing.

• Kevin Durant vs. his limits. KD has played in only three games since March 1, and none of them have had especially high stakes. He performed well in each contest and seems able to hold up to the stresses of a long playoff run, but there’s no way to know how he’ll respond to the intensity of this moment until he enters it. The Blazers aren’t likely to push Durant too far — their defensive options are poor at best — but he’ll still discover how much he’s able to do just eight days after his return to the court. The Warriors can get by in this series without him at his best, but they’ll need him to round into peak form soon to get by other teams.

How the Warriors Can Win

First, they need to get to the arena on time. Then they need to make sure more than one star doesn’t get hurt.

In all seriousness, though, it’s hard to imagine them losing this series. Golden State simply has too much talent and knows its roles too well to lose to a team with such defensive frailties. The Blazers have no answer for Durant, their backcourt can’t check Curry and Thompson enough to make them pay for lax defense at the the other end, and their preferred pace plays into the Warriors’ hands. It would have to take several cataclysmic events for the Blazers to win, and even then they might only be able to take a few games.

The Warriors are no longer playoff neophytes — they’ve been through battles together and know how to respond to pressure. As we learned last June, it takes a few superheroic performances to beat them even when several breaks go against them. Don’t overthink this series.

How the Blazers Can Win

Lillard and McCollum average 60 points for the series, Nurkic comes back as his best self, and the Warriors team bus gets lost in the woods.

Best Reason to Watch

Each team is going to score a ton of points, even in a one-sided series. The Blazers defense just isn’t very good, and the Warriors will gladly let them play fast to let their own offense fly. Golden State scored at least 125 points in three of their four victories over Portland this season and could easily do the same here.

Prediction: Warriors in 4.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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