According to the most recent studies, the average age in the Portland area is 37 years old. So assuming the average Portlander is in their mid to late 30’s, it is most likely that the last time you saw the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, you were near high school age, and living in your parent’s house. And since those same studies show the average person has a child by their mid to late 20’s, you probably have a young Portland Trail Blazers fan you’ve taken under your wing in the last 10 years. So you’ve gone from a teenager to raising a child of your own in between Portland’s trips to the Conference Finals. And just that story alone shows you how much has changed between this trip and the last one. You’re a whole new person, raising a whole new person, and this team is a whole new team. You could even argue, it’s a whole new world (shameless plug, you’re welcome ESPN’s parent company).
What hasn’t changed, is Portland’s opponent, in their simplest form anyway. They are the reigning champions from the state of California, they have the best player on the planet, they have the best coach on the planet, not to mention a roster that on paper at least, cannot be touched. They have not lost a playoff series to a team in the Western Conference for years now (to the point you have to look up the last time it happened), and they have only lost one playoff series in that time to an Eastern Conference opponent, and it took a comeback of epic proportions to pull it off. They are the only unbeatable team this league has seen since the Bulls ruled the NBA for six of 10 years in the 1990s.
Hyperbole on full blast, this team is as great as you think they are, they might even be better than that. They are as Golden as their name implies, and this is their league, unless someone takes it from them.
But the truth is that even super teams have their weaknesses, and the Warriors are no exception. The question isn’t whether Portland is capable of hanging with the Warriors, they’ve proven that they have the heart and depth to compete with any team on any given night. The real question is – can Portland exercise their playoff demons and see the Warriors as just another team in their way of their second title?
To answer that key question and more, we challenged Bryant Knox (BK) and Casey Mabbott (CM) to appear in front of the court of public opinion, and to speculate as to what we can expect to see in the 2019 Western Conference Finals. Without further ado, here is this week’s lightning round:
1. Portland defeated Denver in a thrilling seven game series to advance to their first conference finals since the year 2000. How do you expect them to fare against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, and is there anything they can use from their series against Denver to their advantage?
(BK) There are plenty of positives Portland can take from the second-round series against Denver, but there’s also an unfortunate reality that needs to be addressed: The Blazers needed another team to go ice cold from the three-point line. That’s just not going to happen against Golden State, even without Kevin Durant to kick things off. At the risk of sounding cold ahead of Portland’s first showing in the Western Conference Finals in nearly two decades, this isn’t the kind of team that’s just happy to be here—not with Damian Lillard leading the way. They believe they can win, and the way they’ll do it is by taking a step back and realizing they would’ve lost Game 7 in Denver had it not been for the Nuggets missing all 15 of their threes after Nikola Jokic made his first two. All that said, the Blazers are going to learn from that and they’ll be well prepared for any circumstance—Terry Stotts has proved (mostly) throughout the playoffs he’s capable of making the right adjustments. In this series, Portland likely inevitably loses one badly, even if the beating comes exclusively in the second half via a barrage of Stephen Curry deep shots, but I think win or lose, the rest of the games resemble a true penultimate NBA playoff battle.
(CM) The simple truth is this Portland team is really good, and has played two really good teams, but neither has the star power and scoring ability of Golden State. Their only real offensive liability is Draymond Green, and he’s still good for a double double every night. Portland has up to three offensive liabilities on the court at all times, and their superstar guards can only do so much to cover up the weaknesses. They had to cover a variety of athletes against Denver so they can use that, and they had to worry about multiple scoring threats, so they can use that as well. But they really have to attack the Warriors like they are a different animal, because they just are. It’s going to be a very good series, and I think Portland can and will hang with the Warriors, and in the process they will impress a lot of people that may have been down on them, whether they win or lose.
2. Golden State could get back forward Kevin Durant and center DeMarcus Cousins for the series. How does their availability impact the Blazers game plan(s)?
(BK) If I’m Terry Stotts, there’s no chance in hell I tell my team they need to strike early because they can’t play catch-up in a series with Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins looming. But, like, that’s kinda where we stand, ya? Losing basketball games is less than ideal. Dropping playoff games is a problem. Failing to capitalize when a team—even one as good as Golden State—is missing two players who when added to the equation form the most talented starting 5 in league history…that’s saying you prefer Cabo or Canun to Milwaukee or Toronto. The Blazers need to come out aggressive yet patient, pace-controlling but opportunistic. Most importantly, they need their best out of the gate. Waiting for KD and Boogie to return until you flip the switch isn’t going to cut it. Nobody on this team believes it will (they’ve all seen what’s been going on for five years), so this shouldn’t be a problem.
(CM) I’m far more concerned about the impact Durant has. He is simply the game’s best scorer, and brings so much to the table with his length and hustle on both ends of the court. Portland just does not have a player like him, and as great of scorers as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are, it’s like comparing Clyde Drexler to Michael Jordan, there are parallels but one is the best player in the league while one is a top-5 player, and while they are close to being on the same level, they just aren’t, and there are challenges that go along with that. Boogie I’m less worried about because not only does he have to prove that he’s actually in game shape and healthy (and not just out to cash in when free agency hits in July), but he also has to re-acclimate himself to this Warriors lineup that he was just getting comfortable with before he got hurt. If he can go out there and be productive, he presents the same size and talent issues that Nikola Jokic gave the Blazers, and he is surrounded by capable shooters, where Jokic had to carry the scoring load. Obviously neither can be written off, but if I had to choose one as the bigger concern, it would be Durant, and whenever he is on the court, he’s the focus of your gameplan.
3. Rodney Hood has a bone bruise, and his timetable to return is unclear. How crucial is it for Portland to have their full complement of players?
(BK) Few would’ve expected it, but Rodney Hood has been a blessing in a LeBron Reject disguise for the Trail Blazers. His reliability has been a highlight for a while now, but his crunch-time antics are earning him the national recognition he likely thought was coming last year when he landed with the Cleveland Cavaliers at the trade deadline. Without Hood, Portland lacks a crucial part of its second unit; again, not something you may have thought you’d ever hear. His length and ball-handling/playmaking are huge sighs of relief for a team that has seen Shabazz Napier, Seth Curry, Pat Connaughton and other undersized 1s and 2s try to hold down fort either in place of or alongside Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum. Portland has a big-time X-factor in Hood, maybe one of the biggest remaining. Missing him is a big deal, so you know Rip City is holding its collective breath for everyone’s new favorite Rip Citizen.
(CM) Portland’s starting five is going to have some struggles against this Warriors team, so they need all the help they can get from their bench and that means everyone that can play needs to play and play hard. It seems like they get help from a different set of reserves each game, so you can’t say one or two guys are a lock for any specific production, which makes it tough when they are short guys they have been counting on. We know this team is a roulette table of who will be the sixth man each game, so they just need to keep going with the hot hand and the more capable bodies they have, the better chance they have at giving the starters at least one quality contributor off the bench. It’s a numbers game and the smaller the rotations get, the more pressure you put on specific guys from the supporting cast to step up and try to produce starter’s numbers.
4. Portland’s duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have held their own against superstars Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Nikola Jokic in their previous playoff series, do they have enough star power against the Warriors?
(BK) Star power? No way. They haven’t gained any stars since the last time they faced this team in the postseason, and Game 7 versus Denver aside, most people across the league wouldn’t recognize CJ as one either. For the most part, the Blazers really haven’t relied on star power beyond Dame D.O.L.L.A. to get them where they are today. Evan Turner came through in crunch time last game; we’ve seen what Hood can do when it matters; Enes Kanter is reminding the league what he can be when he’s in a rotation; Zach Collins has the same number of Western Conference Finals appearances as Chris Paul. These are all crucial elements to Portland’s success, which is great news for fans of small-market and/or non-superteams.
(CM) The star power in this series is unfortunately swayed in Golden State’s favor, but it’s not the David vs Goliath battle that some would have you believe. This is a Portland team full of quality veteran experience, and while their only two true stars are Lillard and McCollum, most nights that is enough as long as someone on the bench has a great night and becomes the third star they need. While the Warriors might have a more stocked cupboard in terms of talent, it’s not as though they get all-star production from everyone on their roster each and every night. This team still gets overconfident, and they have a tendency to let certain players take possessions off because they feel like they have the talent to make up the difference if their opponent goes on a run. Portland doesn’t have that luxury, but they can use the Warriors’ pride as a weakness and make them pay for it when it’s on display. Paul George is the closest player that Portland has faced that they can compare to Durant, and will need to prove they can handle him in spurts, but it will require throwing different bodies at him on defense and forcing the other Warriors shooters to hit shots no matter what their last name is. Then Portland needs to do their job and get and stay hot, and hit shots more often so they can be ahead at the final buzzer. It all sounds great on paper, but it’s going to be a very physical and heated series between two teams that respect each other, but do not like each other. Portland will have to play at their very best for at least four masterful games to survive this series, and hopefully that’s enough.
5. Game one is tonight in Oakland, who wins and how does it impact the series?
(BK) I think the Blazers come out calm, cool and very collected in this one. I know you didn’t ask for a play-by-play…but I’m giving Damian Lillard the electrifying 6-0 run to kick off the game with consecutive 28- and 33-footers (#OaklandDame). Unfortunately, what follows is a quick 18-5 Warriors run—ouch. When the Blazers are down 18-11 you’ll start to see some of those positive elements from Game 7 against the Nugs. As they were playing from behind, they didn’t force the issue, and they won’t here either. They played at a pace they were comfortable with, and they proved you don’t need to run a thousand miles per hour to get back into a contest. They also proved you don’t need your star to take over in those situations, so this is where Kanter can start to bully in the paint to chip away. I do think the Warriors, being a different beast than the Nuggets, put enough duress on the Blazers late to make the final score seem worse than it actually is. But even though Portland likely drops this one, it adds to its blueprint on what does and doesn’t work against the current iteration Dubs, avoiding a seriously negative impact on the series.
(CM) Since Durant is not expected to play and as of the time of this writing neither is Boogie or Hood, that leaves the Warriors arguably as shorthanded as the Blazers. Golden State will have to roll out a combination of old man Andrew Bogut and Kevon Looney at center, and most likely insert Andre Iguodala at small forward. That will put the pressure of the scoring load on the splash brothers, and I like Lillard and McCollum’s chances to match them shot for shot. It then boils down to who you trust more in a critical spot – the Warriors bench, or Portland’s? Since the Blazers have had to call on their reserves more than the Warriors have to pull them out of holes, I have more faith in Portland’s battle tested supporting cast. They don’t need to prove they are the better team forever, just in four out of seven games. I would love to see Portland steal one at Oracle tonight, and I believe they will. That will improve Portland’s confidence, and get under the Warriors’ skin, and we’ve seen how they respond when faced with adversity, and it’s not exactly dignified. Just imagine the boost it would give the Rip City faithful to see their team steal one from the defending champs on their home court in their return to the conference finals after a 19 year hiatus. And then even if they lose game two, they get to return home to an absolutely rocking Moda Center for a potentially series shifting game three on Saturday, with a chance to put the champs in a chokehold. What a sight that would be.