The Portland Trail Blazers finished the regular season playing like one of the best teams in the league since the All-Star Break. As of March 1st, the Blazers had a record of 24-35 and were looking at another lottery pick. After finishing the season with a 17-6 record, the Blazers found themselves in the Western Conference Playoffs.
When the Blazers clinched their playoff berth I imagine Paul Allen (PA) getting a call like this from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (AS) …
AS: Congrats Paul, your team battled hard at the end of the season and have now made the Playoffs for the 4th year in a row, and 7th year in the last 9.
PA: Thanks Commish. Proud of our guys.
AS: I want to reward your team’s hard work with a first round matchup with the best team to ever play basketball.
PA: We have to play the 90’s Bulls again?? I still have nightmares of losing to them in the ’92.
AS: No, no, not the Bulls. I’m talking about the Golden State Warriors. You know the team with 5 All-Stars, 2 former MVPs, and JaVale McGee?
PA: Is it too late to opt out of the Playoffs and become the 15th team in the Draft Lottery?
Now, I say all that in jest, but it is the unfortunate reality of the Blazers’ situation. The Warriors have won 207 games in the past 3 regular seasons. In comparison, the Blazers have won 136 games in those three seasons and have made the Playoffs each of those years. Add on top of that the addition of Kevin Durant last off-season and the Warriors are arguably the most dominant team in the history of the NBA.
Through two games, the Warriors have taken care of business in Oakland against the Blazers. With an offensive explosion from Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in Game One, the teams played a very competitive game through 3 quarters before the Warriors pulled away late. Game Two was a different story, and the Warriors were the clearly better team from the tip.
What happens this time of year is fans (remember that is short for “fanatics”) tend to overreact to everything. It is important to hold a little bit of perspective and realize that the world is not coming to an end after two games. Let me give you the top three overreactions I have heard through two games of the Playoffs.
- This series is proof that Lillard and McCollum can never win a championship together.
All season it seemed like there was a black cloud hanging over the two backcourt pillars in Portland. The chatter nationally was that these two guards were never going to be able to take the Blazers to the Promised Land by winning an NBA Finals as teammates. That talk has only intensified through the first two games of this series.
Let me give you a different take on this situation. The exact model that the Blazers need to use to build their team is the Warriors.
In 2009, the Warriors drafted an offensively talented guard from a small school named Steph Curry.
In 2011, the Warriors drafted an offensively talented guard named Klay Thompson.
In 2012, the Warriors struck gold when they drafted an incredibly talented player, and perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate, in the second round named Draymond Green.
After that, they added cost-effective pieces (and Durant) around those guys and built the team that you see today.
In 2012, the Blazers drafted an offensively talented guard from a small school named Damian Lillard.
In 2013, the Blazers drafted an offensively talented guard from a small school named CJ McCollum.
In 2017, the Blazers acquired an incredibly talented, defensive minded, 22-year old center named Jusuf Nurkic.
The Blazers are a few years behind the Warriors, and there is no saying that their ascension is going to be as incredible as the Warriors’ has been, but the pieces are starting to fall into place.
One of the things that has set the Warriors apart is their incredible depth and their ability to attract top free agent talents at team-friendly prices. That is something the Blazers have severely lacked recently. As we all saw last summer, the Blazers seemed to have to overpay, even just to keep their own free agents. I expect to see some correcting moves this summer from Neil Olshey trying to cut some salary from the bloated roster.
Now back to the topic at hand, whether the Blazers could win a championship with Lillard and McCollum as their main two building blocks. The argument against the two guards is that they are both dominant offensively but that they both lack so much on the defensive end, that it will be nearly impossible to be successful.
While that is a valid argument, defense is a team concept and we have all seen how much better defensively the Blazers have been since the addition of Nurkic.
Before the All-Star break, the Blazers were 26th in the league in defensive rating with a 109.0. After the All-Star break, the Blazers were 10th in the league in defensive rating with a 105.4. That is a massive improvement, a lot of which can be attributed to the addition of Nurkic. Now imagine what the potential of this unit is defensively after a full off-season program with Nurkic in the middle.
I am in no way trying to suggest that in a few years the Blazers are going to be the Warriors. The Warriors are one of the best teams to ever play the game. What I am saying, however, is that the Blazers have seen the blueprint before of building around two offensive oriented guards. It can work. And Portland will do what they can to copy that blueprint moving forward.
- Meyers Leonard is the worst player ever.
I think that I have been the biggest Meyers Leonard apologist in all of Portland. When I look at Leonard, I see an athletic 7-footer that can shoot and has a lot of room to grow. In 2014-2015 he was a 50-40-90 shooter, meaning that he shot better than 50% from the field, 40% from the 3-point line, and 90% from the free throw line. The pure talent is there. This season he has unfortunately regressed quite a bit in his shooting and defensive progression, whether by injury or some other reason.
While I have always been on Leonard’s side, I will be the first to admit that he has been bad in a series that the Blazer could really use a big guy inside.
Through two games in the series, Leonard has averaged 10 minutes, 1.0 point, 2.5 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 1.5 turnovers, and 2 personal fouls per game. Plain and simple, not good.
But the overreactions have been extreme. I sure hope that Leonard stays off of social media during the playoffs like a lot of other players, because the hot takes have been sizzling. If social media users were the head coach, Leonard would never see the floor again, especially against a team like the Warriors in the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that Leonard is the only 7-footer on the roster that has been available. Nurkic has a broken leg, Ed Davis is on IR after shoulder surgery, and Festus Ezeli still hasn’t been seen in black and red.
Across from the Blazers are Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee, two guys that absolutely dominated the Blazers on Wednesday night. The two of those guys combined for 25 points on 12-15 shooting and constantly found themselves being defended by smaller guys such as Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. That just isn’t sustainable.
Leonard needs to be a factor in this series, and for this team moving into the future, and most certainly isn’t the worst player ever.
- The Warriors should rest their stars against Portland in preparation for their next round.
I have seen this take from multiple Blazers fans. Seriously, fans of the Blazers have suggested, whether in jest or in all seriousness, that the Warriors could rest 2 or 3 of their stars each night and still breeze through the Portland series.
This argument was intensified Wednesday night when Durant was held out with a calf strain.
Without Durant, the Warriors were dominant at home and beat the Blazers by a final score of 110-81.
But in the series opener on Sunday the story was a little bit different. In Oracle Arena, a place where the Warriors lost only 5 games all season, the Blazers were even with the Warriors until the fourth quarter. This was a full strength Warriors team that got 32 points and 11 rebounds from Durant.
Last year in the playoffs, the Blazers matched up against the Warriors in the conference semi-finals. Portland won Game 3 in Portland when the Warriors were playing without Steph Curry. They ended up losing the series 4-1, but were competitive in all of the games, especially in the games without Curry on the floor.
The suggestion that the Warriors have such an easy matchup that they can rest their stars should be completely insulting to the Blazers and their fans. This is a team that battled their way into the playoffs and earned their spot. This is a prideful team that relishes being the underdog. This is a team that won 25 games at home this season and has traditionally held a strong home court advantage in Portland.
After Game 2, Moe Harkless said that the upcoming Game 3 on Saturday is a must-win for the Blazers. Pair that mindset with the chance that Nurkic makes his return to the court in game three, and I expect this series to get a lot more interesting when they return to Portland.
If Durant can’t come back because of his calf strain, it is a benefit to the Blazers, but we also saw what the Warriors were able to do without him on Wednesday in Oakland. But to suggest that the Warriors should sit their stars just to rest for upcoming series is crazy.
The concept of resting stars has become a hot-button topic this season, but during the regular season. Name a championship team that rested their stars in the first couple rounds and contributed their success to their well-rested stars… I’ll wait.
Really, it is a blessing to see this team in the Playoffs. There are 14 teams at home right now, and before the All-Star break it sure looked like the Blazers would be one of those teams. After a crucial trade, and an enormous effort, they defied the odds and made the Playoffs.
Fans need to relish and enjoy watching this team play postseason basketball. Enjoy and remember the offensive performances by Lillard and McCollum in Game One. Recognize the level of competition they are facing and they extra practice time this team is getting together late in April. This was a team was was supposed to be rebuilding for 3-5 years. Two years into that rebuild it is sure nice seeing this team competitive. Enjoy that, and don’t get caught up in the overreactions.
There will be plenty of time to think about the roster moving forward, the three first-round draft picks, and what trades fit into the ESPN Trade Machine. But for now, it’s Playoff basketball, and this weekend the show is in Portland.