Blazers face tall task against three-time champs
NBA.com Global on May 14, 2019 01:55 PM
FILE - OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 27: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers makes the game winning shot against the Golden State Warriors on December 27, 2018 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
By Shaun Powell, NBA.com
The story within the story of this Western Conference finals matchup will surround one player and maybe two, and it is this: Will Kevin Durant heal quickly enough to make an appearance in Warriors vs. Blazers? Will DeMarcus Cousins? OK, make it two more players: Who will Dell and Sonya Curry root for with dueling sons on opposing benches?
Seriously, though, Durant returning from a strained calf (which is the more likely scenario than Cousins) will impact the series greatly in Golden State’s favor. If Cousins recovers from his quad injury as well, then it gets to be a really unfair fight — and likely a Warriors’ sweep.
In any event, the Warriors step into this series as a prohibitive favorite, especially if you buy the notion that their Western Conference semfinals series with the Houston Rockets was the unofficial conference championship.
The Blazers aren’t here by mistake. They just won a Game 7 on the road in Denver, beat Oklahoma City in five games and boast Damian Lillard. Portland's All-Star guard will certainly feel territorial playing in Oakland, having grown up there as a lightly-recruited high school player.
Yet Lillard seems whipped from his playoff load and was noticeably subpar when he missed 11 of his first 12 shots in Game 7 against Denver and shot below 30 percent on three-pointers in that series. Also, Rodney Hood is ailing from a hyperextended knee. Maybe this is the time when Jusuf Nurkic’s injury -- he suffered a broken leg in March -- finally catches up to Portland.
Meanwhile, the Warriors are bringing the usual cast of characters (minus Durant for the time being) and also have home court. Again, if Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green don’t become complacent and overconfident, this could be the least suspenseful conference finals in recent memory -- if it isn’t already.
Three things to watch
1. Can Andre Iguodala keep up this pace? It should come as no surprise that Iguodala is feeling frisky in the playoffs, but it’s a bit unexpected given that he’s doing it in 2019. Once again, the 2015 Finals MVP is hitting shots from deep (43 percent) and making key defensive plays, yet this is someone who was essentially in hibernation for six months and looked his age (35). Well, his scoring has since doubled and he’s on the floor when it counts, meaning, he’s back in his element.
2. Is CJ McCollum a bigger worry for the Warriors than Damian Lillard? Maybe it’s now CJ Time for the Blazers, as McCollum was downright beastly in their last two games against Denver when he was more reliable than Lillard. McCollum averaged 33.5 points in that span and got the call from coach Terry Stotts for the Blazers’ final play in Game 7, which he secured on a mid-range jumper.
3. How full will Draymond Green's hands be with Enes Kanter? Although he brings a bum shoulder into this series, Kanter is an aggressive presence around the basket and will force Green to direct his attention squarely on the Blazers’ center, who’s averaging 13 points on 52 percent shooting. Just the same, Green might force Kanter to play defense, the weakest part of his game.
The number to know
23.3 -- The Blazers lead the postseason in time of possession, controlling the ball for 23.3 minutes per game. They are not a running team, ranking 24th in the regular season (11.0) and 15th in the playoffs (10.6) in fast break points per game. Only the Orlando Magic took a lower percentage of their shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock, according to Second Spectrum tracking.
The Warriors ranked sixth in the percentage of their shots that came in the first six seconds of the shot clock (18 percent), third in fast break points per game (19.1), and 29th in time of possession. They will push the ball and look for early offense.
The champs will also move the ball more than the Blazers. Though the Warriors have two of the best off-the-dribble shooters in the league, they've recorded assists on 66 percent of their baskets, the second highest rate in the postseason. They've led the league in regular-season assist percentageeach of the last four years.
The Blazers also have two of the league's best off-the-dribble shooters, and they play more like it. Damian Lillard (11.2) and C.J. McCollum (10.6) rank third and fourth in pull-up jumpers per game in the postseason and the Blazers rank last in postseason assist percentage, having recorded assists on less than 46 percent of their total buckets.
This series is a contrast of styles, in more ways than one.
-- John Schuhmann, NBA.com
The championship experience factor could not be more lopsided in this series, as not only do the Warriors have the heavy advantage, they showed as much in their closeout victory over the Rockets, especially down the stretch. While the Blazers may get the urge to pop bottles just for making it this deep in the playoffs, the next step is even tougher, which they’re about to find out. Warriors in four.
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