They did it, folks. It took a hot streak at the end of the year, a 7-foot beast from Bosnia, a record-setting performance from Damian Lillard and one of the most ridiculous game-winning shots you’ll ever see courtesy of Russell Westbrook…but they did it.
The Portland Trail Blazers have clinched a berth in the 2017 NBA playoffs.
Based on overheard conversations around Rip City and Blazers Twitter, there are two main mentalities entering the first-round series against the Golden State Warriors. One side believes that the result is already written in the form of a sweep; the other views Portland’s late run and Lillard’s miraculous 59-point showing as reasons you can’t look past the team tucked away in the Pacific Northwest.
Simply put: You’re either #TeamRealist or #TeamAnythingCanHappen
As far as this piece is concerned, we’re not going to take a deep dive into the analytics behind the matchup. And we’re especially not going to play it safe with our analysis.
No, this is a space where sensibility is cast aside and only the boldest of bold predictions will be displayed (okay, maybe not quite…we’re not exactly predicting an upset by the end of the seven-game series).
Break out the crystal balls, everybody. We did, and this is what we saw.
Jusuf Nurkic Lays An Egg
The playing status of the legend known as Jusuf Nurkic is still unknown. The goal is to get him back for the playoffs, but nothing is official as of this writing.
Assuming the big man plays, we’re not expecting the same kind of showing we’ve seen from him since joining Rip City.
For starters, Nurkic has dealt with conditioning issues since the trade. His time in Denver ended badly with his minutes decreasing, and as a result, he didn’t come to Portland with the best conditioning.
Combine that with the fact that the Warriors run an incredibly fast-paced system and that he’s been out of the lineup recovering and you have a recipe for an underwhelming postseason debut.
Damian Lillard Is The Best Player In The Series
There’s another reason we’re not expecting Nurkic to live up to the hype (despite the fact that he’s earned every bit of hype so far). Damian Lillard, knowing what we know about how he’s performed against this team in the past, will take opportunities away from him.
Nurkic will still have a chance to shine on defense, but without the playmaking and scoring, the big man will be rendered a one-way specialist.
All that said, this won’t be for nothing. Lillard, who will share the court with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, will shine brighter than all the stars in this series.
Simply put: Lillard is a man on a mission. He always has been. He’s used every piece of adversity in his life as motivation to prove doubters wrong, and while it hasn’t always been in the most efficient fashion, he’s on a roll right now despite a few off games between the start of April and Saturday’s blowout against the Utah Jazz.
In this series, Lillard is going to take over. The Warriors are no scrubs on defense (they own the league’s second-best defensive rating behind the San Antonio Spurs), but Dame D.O.L.L.A. is on a mission.
Durant will remind us that he was an MVP candidate before his injury. Curry will undoubtedly go off for 40 once. Green will make his Defensive Player of the Year case against Nurkic. And Thompson could surprise us all with the highest individual scoring quarter of anybody on either roster.
But Lillard will be great, and he’ll be great the entire series.
In other words: It’s Dame Time.
Blazers Steal One Of The First Two Games On The Road
Everybody counting out the Blazers will receive a shock in the form of a road upset in one of the first two games. And everybody in the “We Believe” category will have additional fuel to ignite their fire.
Although getting Durant back at this point in the season is obviously crucial for Golden State, there will be a reintegration process. During Durant’s absence, Curry was revitalized and returned to MVP form. But there’s a legitimate elephant in the room when it comes to asking which one will sacrifice greatness in the other’s presence.
With all that in mind, it’s easy to see how a Lillard-led crew can steal one on the road. The one they call “The Letter O” has a habit of showing up in big moments, and it won’t get any bigger than a series against the presumed NBA Finals champs.
Not even a superteam can put “perfect” on its resume. And against the Blazers, that superlative will be removed almost certainly in Game 2.
Blazers Don’t Win Another Game
Here’s the bad news, Blazers fans. Stealing one game on the road will refocus the Warriors, making them even more dangerous.
By the time we get to Game 3, Durant and Curry will remember how to play with each other. Nurkic’s absence in the offense (either physically or impactfully) will be a problem and the already-super Warriors will go into full postseason mode.
And no, Lillard’s offensive outbursts won’t be enough to make up for any deficiencies the roster as a whole is putting on display.
Nobody’s going to claim that getting a single win in a seven-game series is a moral victory, but there will be positives to take away for a young team competing against an almost-guaranteed Western Conference Finals participant.
None of this is to say Portland or its fans should be content with just one win. But don’t let an early-season victory cloud your perception of what’s really on the horizon.